Several years ago, I was preparing a webinar on strategic planning and stumbled upon a business parable called “The Gardener’s Badge.” In the story, employees at a thriving landscape store always seemed to have a positive outlook and wore buttons that said, “Business is great!” Through economic cycles of ups and downs, the business persisted along with the wellbeing of those who worked there. People around them assumed that the shopkeepers and tenders were happy because they ran a successful business. Instead, the moral was a twist: that their positive attitude contributed toward the success of the business. When pressed for details, they always had something they could appreciate: connection with their customers, companionship of their coworkers, learning new things, and the basic acknowledgement of having a job.
At the time I read this story, I was going through some personal challenges that left me feeling, well, less than great. To be honest, feeling “less than great” was a state of being that was familiar and comfortable to me. But I was also curious to try an experiment (as a social scientist, I love trying small experiments in my own life). I remembered the maxim “fake it ‘til you make it” from the acting classes I took in my teenage years. And though it was not second nature for me, I decided to try keeping a gratitude journal.
Every night at bedtime, I mentally scanned through my day and challenged myself to list five things that I could appreciate and express gratitude for. On some days, the list flowed easily and I even surpassed my minimum of five. Other days it was struggle, but I did it anyway. Sometimes I felt like I was just going through the motions. I did it anyway, even on the most stressful days, even if it was just being grateful for the fact that the day was over and it was time to go to sleep.
After a few months of this practice (yes, months!), it seemed like there was a shift in the world around me. In reality, it was more likely a shift in my perspective. Research shows that attention and mindful practice change neural pathways. Specifically, the more you practice a certain pattern of thought, the easier it is to access that pattern of thought in the future. Over time, it can become second nature to find things to appreciate rather than complain about.
In particular, gratitude is associated with regions involved in social bonding and pain relief. In addition to the mental and emotional benefits, gratitude is associated with a host of effects on the physical body and relationships, including:
- Better sleep
- Heart health
- Improved relationships
- Reduced stress
- Less aggression
- Sense of wellbeing
- Work performance
- Positive effects on every major organ system
- Structural and neuro-chemical changes in the brain
Dr. Robert Emmons describes gratitude as an affirmation of “goodness” and a recognition that the source of goodness comes from outside yourself. My experience of gratitude is as a state of being that allows me to be more connected, creative, and curious. It’s not just a matter of finding the silver linings and turning my back on the challenges. Instead, gratitude gives me a solid rock to stand on in a flow of life that inevitably includes turbulence. It allows me to take a broader perspective rather than getting stuck in the negative (our nervous system has a “negativity bias” which makes it easier to tune into perceived threats).
The effects of gratitude practice take time, but have fundamentally transformed my relationship with life. Fifteen years later (yes, years!), I’ve explored various ways of practicing gratitude. Here are some practices you might consider:
- Write thank you notes (even if you don’t have anyone to send them to).
- Express appreciation in the moment when things feel like they are working out well.
- Start with gratitude when you feel stuck. When I don’t know how to move forward (on a project or a decision), I take a pause and make a list of what I appreciate. Paradoxically, instead of slowing me down, it often creates a new pathway forward with lots of momentum.
Want to learn more?
PS – Watch this 6-minute Gratitude Short Film by filmmaker Louie Schwartzenberg. It always fills me with awe.