The Science of Gratitude

I work on practicing my gratitude regularly. It’s a powerful tool in many ways. I build gratitude intentionally in to my work facilitating work with organizations and coaching individuals, and the impact is noticeable. Recently, a colleague (@acejordan) asked over Twitter about any resources on the science of gratitude. I got excited and went down the rabbit hole on this. Here are a few things I wanted to share.

Defining Gratitude

The Greater Good Science Center from UC Berkeley does great work on this and related topics. Here is an article defining gratitude scientifically. In the article, they feature this talk by Robert Emmons.

Neuroscience of Gratitude

In this piece, How Expressing Gratitude Might Change Our Brains, the author discusses some of the research on the impact of gratitude on the brain. It also notes that giving and being generous to others can be even more powerful than receiving generosity from others in boosting our happiness. So, if you need others to be kinder to you, the best thing to do is express more kindness.

In another deep scientific dive, The Grateful Brain, explores the role of gratitude on neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. When we practice gratitude, our brains get a serotonin boost, making us happier, healthier, and better at whatever we are doing. The serotonin boost makes us better problem solvers, more open to diversity, and more creative and innovative.

And here is one more, The Neuroscience of Gratitude, from the Wharton School of Business. This too unpacks dopamine and serotonin and that gratitude leads to:

less exhaustion and less cynicism;

more proactive behaviors;

higher rating of the health and safety climate;

higher job satisfaction;

fewer absences due to illness.

Journal of Workplace Health Management, (Vol. 2 Iss: 3, pp.202 – 219), “Virtues, Work Satisfactions and Psychological Well-being Among Nurses.”

Gratitude -> Happiness -> Success

Researcher, author, and great TEDx Talker, Shawn Achor explains that the typical reasoning of: once I am successful, I will have something to be happy about; and once I am happy, I will have things to be grateful for in my life is backward. His book, The Happiness Advantage, explores how generating happiness (and practices to do so) can lead to better functioning, productivity, effectiveness, efficiency, relationship building, leadership, and much more. His next book, Before Happiness, explores the role of gratitude in fostering happiness. Here is more from Achor’s funny and scientific TEDx Talk.

This is also a great video making this point that a colleague and I have often used leading workshops and retreats.

5 Levels of Celebration & Gratitude

Achor’s work, other positive psychology research, and my coaching training have taught me to practice much more gratitude in many different aspects of life. I even developed these 5 Levels of Celebration & Gratitude. These were partly inspired by a powerful example of gratitude I wrote about in What an Unusual Roommate Taught Me About Pathological Gratitude.

Gratitude Practices

We can practice gratitude in any number of ways.
1. Gratitude Journal. Write down three things that went well each day.
2. Start with Celebrations. Start meetings, conversations, presentations, and family dinners with celebrations.
3. Write a Gratitude Letter. Identify someone who made a difference in your life and write a letter of gratitude. This practice is highlighted in this Science of Happiness podcast episode from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. A powerful short episode on gratitude, the immigrant experience, libraries, and children’s books.
4. Shift Perspectives. Here’s a short story on how gratitude helped me turn one of my worst mornings into one of my best.

Here are some suggestions for practicing more gratitude from the Center on Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota. 

Finally, here are some practices from Achor’s work on practices that lead to happiness and success.

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