One of the most powerful movements in the self-improvement industry right now is the concept of gratitude. And whether you’ve been browsing the Popular Psychology section of your local book shop, or you’re looking for new ways to nurture a more positive approach to your career this year, you’ll notice that gratitude remains one of the buzzwords for 2018.
But what is it about saying ‘thank you’ to yourself or the people around you, that has everyone talking? And does writing daily gratitude lists à la Oprah Winfrey really play a part in boosting our mental health, improving our relationships and helping us succeed at work?
The answer in short, is yes.
The history of gratitude
Although it might not feel like it, the concept of gratitude isn’t new. Many influential speakers and religions – including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism – have been ‘giving thanks’ for centuries.
“In both East and West, gratitude has had a spiritual foundation, which is expressed in the Biblical saying, ‘Be still and know that I am God’,” says wellbeing guru and author of The Healing Self, Deepak Chopra.
“Yet there is no absolute reason for the inward gaze to be religious. The Greek philosophers said, ‘Know thyself,’ which leads to the same conclusion. At the core of every person is the true self, the source of peace, compassion and loving kindness.”
He adds: “However you define your path, daily practice is necessary, and for gratitude, one of the best practices was described by the 17th-century Dutch philosopher Spinoza. He felt that inner progress could be attained in just a month by asking three questions every day: Who or what inspired me today? What brought me happiness today? What brought me comfort and deep peace today?
“The beauty of this practice is that it asks for a personal answer. Only by knowing what you personally are grateful for can you reach your own truth, and in that truth, we find bliss and freedom.
“The more grateful you are, the more you find to be thankful for - the goal expands as the path moves forward. There is every reason, then, to be grateful for small personal things before you aim at the stars.”
What are the benefits of gratitude?
If you’re looking for concrete evidence to back up your new year of gratitude and its impact on nurturing a healthy mind, just turn to the studies of Positive Psychology.
In the research project ‘Counting blessings versus burdens’, Emmons and McCullough found that a conscious focus on blessings may have ‘emotional and interpersonal benefits’. Meanwhile, the study ‘Gratitude and Happiness’, conducted by Watkins et al, supported the theory that our level of gratitude has a significant effect on how we rate our subjective wellbeing.
“Many people feel they will be happy when they get a promotion or buy a new car and so on. Yet, the truth is, when we don’t know how to appreciate what we have now, there’s no point getting more,” says Tomas Svitorka – life coach and founder of OK is NOT enough.
“No matter what your situation is now, there are many things you can be grateful for, including the small things we often take for granted. When was the last time you appreciated the fact you can have a hot shower with a twist of a nob, or an abundant variety of food in your supermarket?”
He adds: “One of my favourite quotes on this topic is “the struggle ends when gratitude begins,’ by Neale Donald Walsch, and I think we can all learn a lot from this.”
As Tomas says, perhaps there’s a lot to be said for being ‘happy with our lot’. But how does this translate to our professional lives?
Practising gratitude can benefit your career
The Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Robert Emmons, is a huge advocate of practising gratitude in the workplace. In his article Three Surprising Ways that Gratitude Works at Work, he says that practising gratitude helps us sleep better, feel more content with our position in the workplace and even encourage us to contribute more to our organisation.
Meanwhile, business thinker and author Erika Andersen goes as far to say that practising gratitude in the workplace could make you more successful.
Tomas agrees. “One of the traits I see among successful people is they appreciate adversity and challenges at work,” he says.
“They see them as opportunities to grow and get better while others whine and complain. It’s important to keep in mind that nothing is good or bad. It’s our interpretation of it that determines how it makes us feel.”
Overcoming the negative bias
If all the talk of a new positive way of thinking sounds like too much of a challenge, you’re not alone. Many of us start the new year feeling all gung-ho about a new lifestyle change or way of thinking. But research suggests that up to 80 per cent of New Year’s resolutions fail by the second week of February.
What’s more, our own biology isn’t exactly on our side; studies have shown that humans have an innate tendency to focus on the negative over the positive - something behavioural scientists call the ‘negative bias’.
And – excuse the over-generalisation – that’s before we’ve even factored in the tendency that we British people have to self-deprecate. After all, when was the last time you gave yourself a metaphorical pat on the back when you helped out a friend? And when did you last see the hashtag #grateful or #blessed on Instagram without feeling like that person behind the post was a little bit self-indulged?
Most importantly, how much do you listen to that critical voice in your head? Far more often than the one that praises you when you’ve aced a presentation at work, I suspect.
Re-wiring our negative thinking brains
The good news is, it is possible to ‘re-wire’ our brains and to dampen down our negative bias and inner critic. Which is why disciplines like strength-based therapy – which encourage us to be thankful for our internal strengths and positive attributes over our weaknesses and failures – are so effective in treating anxiety and depression. It just takes a little bit of practice, says Jo Usmar, journalist and author of This Book Will Make You Successful.
“We, as humans, are programmed to constantly focus on where we believe we’re lacking – comparing ourselves to other people negatively. It’s part of our survival-of-the-fittest shtick,” explains Jo.
“It’s also how we measure success. Yet this can breed perfectionism and unrealistic expectations. Our achievements end up taking a backseat to the mistakes we make or the disappointments we suffer because those trigger stronger emotions (rejection, humiliation, vulnerability and shame), so are easier to recall. And when we do succeed or do well, we brush over it, moving the goal-posts or dismissing it as ‘not counting’ somehow.
“To add to these pressures, there’s a tendency to take things for granted in today’s “do everything now” society and actually, most people just want to feel appreciated, as you do.
“Practising gratitude regularly, forces you to pay attention to your achievements and the good things that have happened. It's a way of actively combatting that negative bias and by showing gratitude to others, you will breed positivity.”
How do you bring gratitude into your daily life?
In his book, ‘Awaken the Giant Within,’ Anthony Robbins suggests that in order to love every day of your life, you need to ask yourself a set of ‘Morning Power Questions’ that help you focus on the things that bring you happiness, pride, excitement, enjoyment, commitment and love’.
Similarly, one of the best ways to train yourself in the discipline of gratitude is to see it as a skill, says Tomas.
“Some are surprised I call it a skill, but a skill is something we can learn and master, so we can master gratitude,” he says.
“Start your day by writing down three to five things you can be grateful for. Over time, it will have a profound effect on how you feel and experience life and will train your mind to focus on the positive rather than on what’s missing or imperfect.”
He adds: “I personally started the 1st of January with a list of 100 things I am grateful for and will continue to practice a gratitude ritual every day I can.”
But how do we use gratitude to boost our careers?
“In the workplace,” says Tomas, “ask yourself questions that will help you focus on seeing the benefits in your situation: How is this good for me? What can I learn from this? What can I be grateful for now?”
Just say thank you
Oprah once said, “You radiate and generate more goodness for yourself when you're aware of all you have [rather than] focusing on your have-nots.”
So, whether you decide to pepper your social media with life-celebrating hashtags, quietly note the things you’re grateful for at the end of each day, or give yourself a metaphorical pat on the back now and again, it’s clear that we are all capable of using gratitude to boost our mental health and happiness.
And if you want to start small, then do, says Jo. “Never dismiss the power of simply saying thank you, or celebrating the fact you’ve received a thank you for something you’ve done.
“We can all change our lives for the better with those two simple words.”