Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday, a time for families and football. Many families have a tradition in which each family member stands up and declares their thankfulness for something. While such traditions are great, thankfulness or gratitude should be more than a once-a-year tradition. Gratitude should be a constant part of our being. No matter how bad your circumstances, you’re better off than the vast majority of the people who live today or have passed before you. Sometimes we focus too much on things we don’t have or events we view as negative. We’re all extraordinarily fortunate to be alive in this time, in this place. Maybe we should all be more grateful of the many good aspects of our lives.
Gratitude is an interesting concept. One interesting aspect of gratitude is that it can either be expressed or silent. Reflecting on the things for which we’re grateful is silent gratitude while writing a thank-you note is expressed gratitude. Another interesting aspect is that gratitude can be an emotional reaction (I’m grateful to my wife for buying my favorite flavor of yogurt), or a disposition (she is a grateful person). Both of these are important; the former leads to the latter.
Why is gratitude important? There are several ways to examine this question. I’ll approach it from two angles, why gratitude is important personally, and why it’s important socially. Psychology research tells us that gratitude brings a number of benefits, including increased happiness, increased well-being, improved health, and improved relationships. Being more grateful focuses our thoughts on the positive aspects of our lives, which leads to greater happiness; it’s hard to be grateful and unhappy at the same time. According to Aristotle (and others), we determine our own happiness, so taking control of our thoughts is an important path to happiness. Gratitude is one tool for taking control of our thoughts in a manner that brings happiness by moving our thoughts away from the negative aspects of life towards the positive aspects of life. Happiness is important; in fact one can argue that happiness is the central purpose of human existence. (According to many, Aristotle made this claim, although his view of happiness is a bit different from modern perspectives.) So, increasing our happiness is central to our flourishing as humans. Expressed gratitude, such as writing a thank-you note, brings a pragmatic, non-psychological benefit as well. When you express gratitude to someone, you increase the chances that the other person will grant you future favors. A bit mercenary, I suppose, but a benefit nonetheless.
Gratitude is also important from a social perspective. Gratitude encourages benevolent acts by giving a sort of payment on the benevolent act. When someone is grateful towards you, your mood elevates; you feel better almost immediately. Most of us like feeling good, so this motivates us to be benevolent in the future. Gratitude also encourages good acts. Although doing good in stealth is a worthy endeavor, for most of us even a small expression of gratitude makes us more likely to do good for others in the future. Expressing gratitude is also a part of a virtuous cycle. Someone does you a favor, you express gratitude, which encourages others to perform good acts, which leads to gratitude, and the cycle continues. A failure to express gratitude may stop the cycle of good acts, so gratitude is doubly important. We can also look at gratitude as an expression of justice. By expressing gratitude, the person who does something for the good of others reaps a reward, so a good act is rewarded with a good act.
The social benefits of gratitude are important to leaders. When you express gratitude to those you lead, two things happen. First, you build a culture of gratitude. As a leader, you serve as a model of proper behavior. By being grateful you demonstrate that gratitude is valued. Second, your gratitude shows that you value your people and their contributions, which encourages further contributions.
Let me conclude by offering a few suggestions on becoming more grateful. Be mindful of the good things in your life (and there are many). Awareness necessarily precedes gratefulness. Make it a point each day to express your sincere gratitude to someone; say “thank you,” write a note, send an email, whatever works, but express your gratitude. Finally, follow the advice of Stoic philosopher and “last good Emperor of Rome,” March Aurelius, “When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love.” What better way to start your day?