Gratitude has long been the subject of psychological research. As with many subjects in psychology, multiple definitions can be found, however Sansone and Sansone offer a short and sweet definition, describing gratitude as “the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself and represents a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation” (2010).

A regular practice of gratitude can enrich your life in surprising ways. Many of us may have heard about practicing gratitude - an attitude of gratitude, as the saying goes - but less may have an understanding of its positive effects. Type ‘gratitude' into Google Scholar and you get about 1.51 million results. Why? Well, a look at the literature quickly reveals the benefits of gratitude to span across multiple life domains including psychological, social, personality, career and health.

Research has demonstrated that gratitude promotes helping behaviours , even when it may come at a cost to the helper, reduces stress and depression, improves sleep, metabolism, feelings of optimism, life satisfaction, and engagement in work (and consequently job performance). One study showed that employees who felt appreciated by their bosses performed 50% better. A lack of feeling appreciated also happens to be one of the main reason why employees leave their jobs. So it seems the rewards of gratitude are both personal and interpersonal.

Gratitude, therefore, has potential to shape a workplace culture where employees value social relationships, are cheerful, invested and collaborative.

So how can something so invisible, so abstract and intangible as an attitude impact us in such tangible ways? 

One explanation is through the effect of gratitude on the hypothalamus – which is the area of brain responsible for dopamine release, managing sleep and metabolism. Alex Korb Ph.D writes, “Gratitude can have such a powerful impact on your life because it engages your brain in a virtuous cycle.” In other words, practicing gratitude activates the hypothalamus, which releases dopamine – the ‘reward’ neurotransmitter – thereby increasing the likelihood of practicing more gratitude!

Gratitude has also been shown to be associated with personality, with people who are open, conscientious, agreeable, and particularly those who are extraverted, experiencing higher levels of gratitude, and those high in neuroticism/nervousness showing low levels of gratitude. So having an awareness of our unique personalities, and how aspects of our personalities may hinder gratitude and all its associated outcomes, could highlight where our opportunities for growth are. 

Gratitude practices may take many forms. You may have heard about a gratitude journal – well research has now shown that focussing deeply on one thing at a time, has more benefit than the I’m grateful for my house, I’m grateful for my health, I’m grateful for my grandma recitation approach. Here is a template to get you started!

Taking micro moments to recognise the ‘little things’ - which often turn out to be the big things when they cease to exist - is another great way to develop mindful engagement with our lives and ultimately feel more fulfilled. Right now, for example, while my shoulders are straining from hunching over my laptop, I’m grateful for internet access allowing me to delve into the research of others, and I’m grateful that I can pick my laptop up and move into a different position!

At an organisational level, gratitude is about a regular practice whereby we show appreciation for the inherent worth of our colleagues in ways that are specific and sincere. A simple thank you is not underrated! In fact, a written note of thanks given to an ‘unthanked’ person has been shown to have some substantial impacts on the wellbeing of the note giver lasting for weeks.

Although these ideas may seem simple, coaching for individuals or groups can be helpful in identifying actions and maintaining momentum and focus to bring more of these practices into our lives so we (and those in our lives) may reap the benefits.   

Blog by Ance Strydom