Gratitude: A new approach

By Angelo Kinicki&  |  Weatherup/Overby Chair in Leadership


In your work and home life, showing thanks is beneficial

Like so many of us, I was coached by my parents to show gratitude during the holiday season. It all started at Thanksgiving dinner, when all seven family members had to proclaim something for which we were grateful.

As a young boy, I used to say things like, “I’m grateful that I don’t have to go to school today.” Today, I am grateful for more important things. I am grateful for my employer, Arizona State University.

I thrive there as a W. P. Carey School of Business management professor, and 33 years of employment have flown by. I am thankful for my mother, who is 90. She raised five kids, mostly without a husband, and she taught me how to save money and work before play.

While I did not like these lessons as a child, particularly when she forced me to save 50 percent of my paper-route income and to do chores before playing with friends, they sure helped me achieve goals beyond my dreams.

I’m also thankful for my wife, Joyce. She is a priceless spouse and friend, who makes me want to be a better person. As a native of Cleveland, I am grateful for our Arizona weather in the winter. So, what exactly is gratitude?

Gratitude is defined as a feeling of thankfulness, wonder or appreciation. It can play an important role in our lives. Research suggests that the small act of saying, “Thank you,” or recognizing how someone has helped us, can have positive effects on our well-being.

Researchers at the Institute of HeartMath Research Center have studied the effects of gratitude across many different groups of people. They find that the expression of gratitude leads to a healthier heart, increased mental clarity, more balanced moods, a better immune system and increased happiness.

By simply expressing gratitude to others, we are healthier both physically and mentally. Equally important, people receiving gratitude report these same positive benefits. That’s one reason to try to increase the amount of gratitude we show to others.

Then, why is it that most of us don’t express our gratitude at work and home? There are three common reasons: first, our busy schedules lead us to focus on what we need to accomplish rather than who helped us to get things done.

This can be compounded by the tendency to take more personal credit for success than failure. Second, we can be so self-focused and in need of positive feedback that we neglect to recognize others. Remember that people who feel unappreciated generally do not jump up to help you in the future.

Finally, our minds have a natural orientation to look for negative rather than positive things in the environment. This can easily be seen when you pass an accident on the freeway: The traffic stalls to a crawl as we crane our necks to see the damage.

By focusing on the negative, we miss the positive things happening in our lives, making the expression of gratitude less likely. Remember, what you look for, you will find. There are many ways you can change your behavior regarding the expression of gratitude.

Try these and watch for the tangible benefits in yourself and others:

  1. Keep a gratitude journal at your bedside. Before going to bed, write down two or three things that went well today. These can be small events, such as, “My spouse brought me a cup of tea while I was reading the paper.” Next, jot down a short note, explaining why this happened.
  2. Write a gratitude note to someone. I wrote one to my academic mentor a year ago, thanking him for all he did for me while I was his student 35 years ago. He was strongly moved by the gesture, and I felt great for doing it.
  3. When you encounter someone who is overtly negative, ask him or her to state one thing that went well today. I use this on my mother when she gets all wound up about being in assisted living. A simple, “Mom, did you enjoy talking with your friends at bingo?” or “Did you enjoy lunch with your tablemates?” turns her around.
  4. Make it a daily goal to notice something good that someone did at work or home, and then tell the person about it. Be specific and sincere. Unauthentic gratitude can create backlash, anger and resentment.
  5. Close your eyes and recall a time and place when you felt happy and peaceful. Picture the environment and try to remember the details of the situation, such as colors, temperature, smells and people involved. Focus on the positive emotions associated with the event. The expression of gratitude is good for everyone, particularly ourselves. As novelist Marcel Proust notes, “Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”


First published in The Arizona Republic, December 7, 2014.