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Gratitude at work: why giving is as good as getting

Last year, I took Yale University professor Dr. Laurie Santos’s wildly popular “The Science of Well-Being” 10-week online course. Each week, I learned about how what we think makes us happy actually doesn’t (money, stuff, social media, good grades, a perfect body). I also discovered what contributes to making us sustainably happy (exercise, meditation, connection to others, gratitude).

The penultimate assignment was to write a letter of gratitude to someone whom I hadn’t previously thanked. I remembered a naturopath who had seen me through some tough times. For years, I’d had a nagging feeling that I kind of blew her off when things got better.

Writing the one-page letter by hand was easy. As instructed, I wrote about the role she played in my life and what her support meant to me. I finished with a genuine expression of gratitude for her kindness and the gentle ways she helped me.

I hoped she would feel special and appreciated. And I think she did. What I didn’t expect was the profound effect the experience would have on me. Sitting in her office and reading the letter to her (per the assignment), I found myself on the verge of tears. Not because I was reliving old hurts, but because I felt so moved at the memories of her goodness. And because I was actively saying thank you for it. I was enveloped in what I can only describe as an internal hug as a rush of good feeling whooshed throughout my body.

I hoped she would feel special and appreciated. And I think she did. What I didn't expect was the profound effect the experience would have on me.

Turns out, that feeling was the work of a twin surge of dopamine and serotonin released by my brain. This is what happens when you express gratitude. And it feels great. Even when the rush subsides, you’re left with a sense of optimism, happiness, and connection to others and the world at large.

Why isn’t everyone doing this every day—with everyone? I wondered as I joyfully stepped out of my naturopath’s office.

As I turned my attention back to my workday, I realized we’re not exactly socialized to express heartfelt gratitude. Especially at work. In fact, a John Templeton Foundation poll of 2,000 Americans found that people are less likely to feel or express gratitude at work than anywhere else. Although respondents acknowledged that saying thank you to colleagues made them feel happier and more fulfilled, only 10 percent reported doing it. Sixty percent of those polled said they “either never express gratitude at work or do so perhaps once a year.”

Even when the rush subsides, you’re left with a sense of optimism, happiness, and connection to others and the world at large.

I learned in Dr. Santos’s course that gratitude is a practice and requires intentionally building the habit of literally counting your blessings and expressing appreciation to others. It seems a very individual pursuit, so is it even possible to make the workplace a more “gratitude-friendly” place?

For answers, I turned to Sandra Corelli, founder and president of Humanicity Consulting Group. With years of experience in HR at Canada’s biggest financial institutions and a post-graduate certificate in positive psychology and well-being, she’s uniquely qualified to guide organizations on how to create a more grateful workplace culture. Here are five ways she suggests incorporating gratitude into your organization.

[Related read: Giving thanks: brands need gratitude, too]

1. Start with yourself
Corelli says we can’t show gratitude to others effectively if we don’t show it to ourselves. Yes, that means actually doing the “self-care” we hear so much about, but also paying attention to the thoughts and feelings we may not share with others so easily.

“We all have intense emotions from time to time. It’s important to sit with them instead of avoiding them. Functional MRIs of the brain show that when you label a feeling, it helps diffuse it,” she said.

“It’s important to be specific and to focus on what you can control and what you need to accept in that moment. I may be disappointed that I didn’t get to go to Europe this summer, but I can reframe that feeling by focusing on the good parts of the last few months and feeling grateful for them.”


2. Say thank you—and be specific
It might feel treacly to express heartfelt gratitude to a colleague with whom you have a strictly professional relationship. But ‘thank you’ doesn’t have to come with a hand on your heart and tears in your eyes. In fact, the most effective expressions of appreciation stick to the facts.

Corelli says we can't show gratitude to others effectively if we don't show it to ourselves.

“It’s really about recognizing people in the moment and giving very specific feedback. For example, ‘Thank you for the contribution of your ideas in that meeting. It helped us see things from a different perspective and come up with a solution to the problem.’ This goes beyond, ‘Great work’, which starts to mean nothing after a while. Specific gratitude articulates the impact of the person’s contributions,” said Corelli.

[Related read: We can cultivate empathy anywhere, even from our living rooms]

3. Leaders: model gratitude
We know that leaders often “make the weather” in many workplaces. What if that weather was clear, sunny—and grateful?

“Leaders who demonstrate gratitude are much more likely to have employees who do the same. Culture is a shadow of the leader,” said Corelli.

This might include taking the time to recognize an individual at the close of every meeting, sending a virtual gift card, or calling a team member with no other motive except to say thank you. “The smallest of touchpoints can often have the biggest impact,” she said.

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4. Empower employees to show gratitude—to each other and customers
Employees who have the autonomy to express gratitude to their colleagues and customers are more likely to do it—and feel great about it. For example, FreshBooks’ customer service agents each have a small budget to send a gift to customers who could use a boost.

"The smallest of touchpoints can often have the biggest impact." — Sandra Corelli

“I encourage leaders to think about what’s the freedom within the framework that you can give individual employees. It will depend on the industry, but if a co-worker has the discretion to offer a coupon code, a gift card, or a product to express gratitude, they’ll use it. We get a great lift when we please someone in an unexpected way,” said Corelli.

[Related read: Why empathy has moved from buzzword to business necessity]

5. Understand how gratitude contributes to DE&I
Gratitude is a crucial element of fostering diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace, both on a practical and organizational level. “A big part of creating an inclusive environment is developing a sense of belonging, as in, ‘You are welcome here as your authentic self.’ This means not asking anyone to act, be, or look a certain way to fit in,” said Corelli.

“It’s essentially saying, ‘I see and appreciate you for who you are and I’m honoring that.’ That is an expression of gratitude.”

Is there anything gratitude can’t do? Well, there’s one small thing: it doesn’t spontaneously occur. For most of us, this means rewiring our brain to include a gratitude mindset.

Gratitude is a crucial element of fostering diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace, both on a practical and organizational level.

The good news is that it’s not that hard to develop. Most experts say it’s as simple as writing down three things you’re grateful for once a day. Or, when your friends or family sit down to eat together, ask everyone to name one thing they feel thankful for. Same goes for team meetings. If you’re really motivated, write someone a letter and read it to them. Pretty soon, you’ve got yourself a gratitude practice.

Corelli says it’s the kind of thing that has the potential for a huge ripple effect. “I believe if you create everything from a place of gratitude, it spreads.”

Warning: May cause gratitude

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