The Gratitude Connection: Where Gratitude Comes From and What It Can Do

By Donald Officer

Article Summary: For January 2021, part 2 of the Gratitude Project review shares a need for us to “rewire ourselves for gratitude”. This is a multi-year research study that explores gratitude’s deep roots in human psychology when it is fully used to its full potential. Gratitude is a powerful technique to increase our well-being in many ways, as outlined in the article. The article also showcases high impact and engaging concepts including “the power of gratitude” and the way “leaders can become gratitude builders”. And may we see more such gratitude builders as we continue into the new year ahead.

Where Gratitude Comes From and What It Can Do

Be grateful for what you already have while you pursue your goals. If you aren’t grateful for what you already have, what makes you think you would be happy with more.

Roy T. Bennett

In December’s Gratitude Connection I tried to offer a sense of what the contents of the book
The Gratitude Project: How the science of thankfulness can rewire our brains for resilience, optimism, and the greater good most resembled. The best description I could come up with was that of an almanac. Its 234 pages compress an astonishing amount of wisdom into a volume you could read through in a single uninterrupted day. But you won’t digest it in that much of a hurry.

Gratitude, it seems, is a quality for all seasons. The book is divided into six parts each assembling a handful of short topical articles identified as chapters. This being the start of a much longed for new year it might be appropriate to look at the first two parts which tackle first the roots and then the impact of gratitude. These chapters attempt a reflective science-informed mapping of the origins and consequences of gratitude for the individual and by extension, our species. Several disciplines with tendrils reaching into and around this irreplaceable emotion are touched upon by contributors who have themselves researched or reviewed in depth the aspects they probe.

In Chapter One, Robert Emmons, probably (and deservedly) the most well-known gratitude researcher, takes on those who would dismiss the simple courtesy of expressing thanks whenever someone is even slightly better off because of what someone else has done. He picks for his example an opinion piece written by Barbara Ehrenreich for The New York Times a few years ago. In her op-ed she cites a Walmart employee awarded a dollar an hour pay increase by a corporation headed by a CEO commanding a base pay approaching $1 million annually. According to Ehrenreich, to express gratitude for such a comparatively modest change in remuneration, brands this employee as a “chump.”

The worker might justly consider the disturbing economic consequences of the vast unhealthy inequality still rising in our society. The social impact of the gap makes the future look alarming as forecast by economists, sociologists and historians. But is that all the well-adjusted employee sees? Research reveals that most people who accept modest gains with gratitude are neither naïve, easily bought off, nor likely to become indolent. Folklore and received wisdom picture gratitude as a simple homely virtue. But this simplistic approach misses the complex values and fascinating textures gratitude brings out. Ingratitude isolates those who feel slighted, making them feel robbed of an entitlement. How does that mindset benefit anyone? If things are truly tough, the Walmart employee’s best option could be to organize fellow workers. Alas, without gratitude, the “chump” will make little headway with anyone who might otherwise listen.

Emmons concludes his case for gratitude by reminding us that gratitude is not a zero-sum game. Moreover, as other contributors to The Gratitude Project confirm, a person’s level of gratitude fluctuates over both short intervals and long stretches of time. This may frustrate a few folks, perhaps a perennial people pleaser, trying to get an apathetic soul to exhibit some of the big G now and then. Ever met a cranky toddler? Some days you can change things, others not so much.

This flexible plasticity of gratitude which you see in children as well as adults, where it might look less charming, is potentially beneficial if you know how to use it. While anyone’s base level of gratitude is distinctly individual, on any given day or time you might be surprised by how grateful you feel or don’t. For those of you who tend to come in higher on the scale, probably because your brain is better at recycling dopamine, enjoy your exuberance and appreciate the ease with which you make connections. Those who typically appear less grateful might discover a compensatory gift for greater attentiveness and a better memory. You might even be grateful for being less grateful sometimes – if it serves a worthwhile end.

Several of the contributors brainstormed the proven benefits and together developed a powerfully impressive short list. No doubt the long list is still being compiled. First noted, gratitude makes us feel good. Who could not use more of that? Almost axiomatically it improves relationships, benefits health and inspires good works. It is not a universal solvent to wash away all problems as the ungrateful will be first to point out, but it is the start of whatever can fairly be achieved.

Researcher David DeSteno who you may remember as the author of Emotional Success, emphasizes the motivational power of gratitude as a spark plug for full engagement at any time.
It’s especially valuable if you are planning something that will take grit and resilience to see through. Like New Year’s resolutions. New York Times feature writer, Tara Parker-Pope turns around the residual discouragement of 2020 in a column she published last week. The essence of her approach is that we should take our best habits from the “annus horribilis” at last ended only two shaky weeks ago and apply these to her “Gratitude Challenge”, a one-week tonic in the shape of a self-administered course in building productive habits and resistance defeating rituals.
For more on this shot in the arm – please excuse the all too timely image – check out the January fourth Times edition. To take Parker-Pope’s gratitude challenge, sign up for the Well newsletter and you’ll find all the challenge steps in your inbox.

As we know by experience, the power of gratitude, and acknowledgment too, are greater gratitude builders. The effects are contagious, socially, morally, biologically and emotionally for all parties. Grateful leaders succeed by reaching out with authentic appreciation, but also by example. The editors and contributors to The Gratitude Project reinforce this message from every scientific and anecdotal angle imaginable. The roots, meaning and impact of gratitude could hardly be made more thoroughly.

What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection monthly and International Institute for Learning Senior Vice-President, Judith W. Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment, will help you see the possibilities.