There are many facets of work and life in general that we do not control. But we can increase our control over our own responses to them. Positive psychology researchers* have shown that one’s happiness level is determined partly by a genetic baseline or set point (50%), partly by circumstances (10%), and partly by intentional activity (40%). It is that opportunity we have to be intentional where we can make a real and ongoing difference in our chronic happiness levels. One way to raise our overall level of well-being even in the face of trouble and stress at work is to practice and grow stronger at being grateful.
One study** reported that people who conduct certain gratitude exercises are healthier and feel better about their lives, make more progress toward goals, are more optimistic, and are more likely to help others than people in control groups.
So how do we increase the level of gratitude we experience in our jobs and our lives?
Here are a few suggestions:
- Pay attention to the good things, large and small. This often requires intentional thought because bad things are more salient to us than good things. For example, I have a friend in his 80’s with arthritis in his hands. He becomes aware of it whenever he knocks something over or has trouble picking something up. I suggested that whenever he finds himself saying, “My poor crippled hands,” that he follow it with “My magnificent legs that let me walk every day without cane or walker.” That does not mean ignoring the painful or disabled. It means balancing it with occasional thoughts of how lucky we are to have so many working parts! We have to work a little to give the positive thoughts space in our brains.
- Pay attention to bad things that are avoided. I recently tripped over a small stump and fell flat on my face during a practice hike to get ready for our trip to the mountains. When I picked myself up, I was very grateful to have only a deep bruise on my thigh, no broken bones. It will take a while for the gorgeous 8 inch bruise to go away, but I can still hike. Thank goodness!
- Practice downward comparisons. That means thinking about how things could be worse, or were worse, or are worse for someone else. I don’t particularly like the idea of making myself feel more grateful by thinking of others who are worse off than I am. But it doesn’t have to be interpersonal. You can use downward comparison by remembering your own times of adversity or being aware of adversity avoided. The poet, Robert Pollock, said it thus: “Sorrows remembered sweeten present joy.” Here’s a work example. I have two friends who recently moved into the same department in the same company. One is relieved and happy because the situation seems so much better than before. The other is dissatisfied because the teamwork characterizing the old job is no longer there. The first has an easy time with downward contrast. The second will have to work a little harder to find reasons to be grateful.
- Establish regular times to focus on being grateful. Gratitude is a character strength that can be enhanced with practice. So practice. Marty Seligman describes two exercises in Authentic Happiness, the Gratitude Visit and a form of keeping a gratitude journal. The efficacy of gratitude interventions has been studied with clinical populations (Duckworth, Steen, & Seligman, 2005) and student populations (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006).
- When facing a loss or a difficult task or situation, remind yourself to be grateful both for what you haven’t lost and for the strengths and opportunities that arise from facing difficulties. Tennen and Affleck found that benefit-seeking and benefit-remembering are linked to psychological and physical health. Benefit finding involves choosing to focus on the positive aspects of the situation and avoiding the feeling of being a victim.
- Elicit and reinforce gratitude in the people around you. Negative moods are catching, but positive ones can be as well. The character, Pollyanna, helped other people see the benefits in their situations by teaching them the Glad Game. Sometimes, having someone else see what is good in your own life makes it visible to you.
Gratitude is a character strength admired around the globe. To increase gratitude, a good first step is to notice the good things that happen to us, large and small. These practices can help us take fewer blessings for granted.
Kathryn Britton, MAPP, former software engineer, is a certified professional coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their lives. She has also worked with work teams to increase job satisfaction and engagement. For more information, see her Web site, Theano Coaching, and her blog, Reflections on Positive Psychology. This article on gratitude is the fifth in a series called "Taking Positive Psychology to Work". Kathryn writes for Positive Psychology News Daily on the seventh of each month, and her past articles are here.
(Originally published in Positive Psychology Daily with references, footnotes and further information)
* Lyuobomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade (2006)
** Emmons and McCullough (no date)