Eight years ago, I heard a speaker claim that gratitude, which seems so gentle and quiet, is actually the most powerful of human emotions – in fact the one emotion that can change the world. I really thought deeply about his claim, because I wanted to know how this could be so.
How can such a gentle and fleeting emotion make powerful changes, when other emotions like passion and conviction seem more inspiring? Yet eight years later, my life has become both more peaceful and more powerful. My increased power comes from confidence and it is definitely grounded in gratitude! Something as seemingly silly as being grateful for the opportunity to learn and improve when faced with a particularly irritating situation.
For Thanksgiving this year, I’d like to share with you the article I wrote when I first discovered the power of gratitude. May it serve you as well as it has served me.
Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. As a busy adult, I have a stress-to-joy quotient related to every holiday. For Thanksgiving, my stress investment is an extra trip to the grocery store, and a tad more cooking and cleaning than usual on Thursday morning. The payback in joy is a nice relaxing meal with conversation, wine or beer, football, pie, perhaps a few games, maybe a movie, and lots of lounging on big cushy furniture around a fireplace, because the HUGE four-day weekend has only just begun. I don’t have to do laundry, homework, or give anyone a bath before bed. No other holiday gives me as much joy in exchange for my efforts.
Of course, since Thanksgiving is dedicated to gratitude, I always spend a few minutes thinking about “what I’m grateful for”. But this year, for the first time, it struck me how powerful the feeling of gratitude really is. And, how useful it can be when it comes to success – both personally and professionally! In our family, we go around the table and each person says something that he or she is grateful for before we start our meal. Some talk about love, health and family, others joke about beer and football, and some share a positive event from that year.
With our tradition, more often than not, people are preoccupied with dinner prep, or uncomfortable speaking in front of the group, so although they do their best to say something appropriate, I wonder if the actual feeling of gratitude has a chance to emerge. I know for me, more often than not, it doesn’t. I do my best to say something honest – whatever comes to mind at the time. And meanwhile, I’m watching to make sure one child has his drink in a safe place, the other is actually eating turkey before pie, and the guests all have drinks, silverware, and napkins.
But later, when I’m relaxing by the fire, I do have a chance to experience real gratitude. I watch the children play a game with their uncle. I’m grateful for the opportunity to sit back and enjoy their faces, pay attention to how small their hands and feet are, and listen to their voices and expressions, realizing how quickly they grow up. On the surface, this may seem like just a moment for me to notice and appreciate and smile.
But here’s the power: That moment of gratitude relaxes my muscles, changes my mood slightly, and when the kids come over to be close they get more hugs, cuddling, affection, and attention. How does that impact them? My gratitude towards my brother (the uncle) for engaging with the children replaces my usual relatively impatient and critical “big sister” attitude with more appreciation, respect, and kindness. How does that impact him? I notice that my husband does more than half of the food preparation and clean-up, which gives me the opportunity to sit back and relax in the first place. I feel lucky that we work so well together on a meal. How does that impact our relationship?
Take this one step further. More appreciation in the house relaxes the moods of all the adults. They feel more at peace and have more patience with the children. The children feel safe in an environment where the adults are happy. Work gets done easier. Stress levels stay down. People are okay just being themselves. What are the physiological affects? The impact on everyone’s health? I could go on and on.
Maybe one moment of gratitude in one person doesn’t make a huge difference in the dynamics of a family, but it does generate a significant shift. It produces a slight change in energy level, and several subtle shifts in behavior, each impacting other people, and building stronger, safer relationships.
What if just one person experienced a genuine moment of gratitude just one or two times each day? Would that impact the family dynamics? You bet. And if family relationships are impacted positively, how does that, in turn, impact each person’s individual sense of well-being? And, how does each person’s individual sense of well-being impact their personal level of success in the world, or their ability to impact others in a positive way?
Your own gratitude can have a positive impact even if the others in your family don’t cooperate. Most people don’t pay attention to their emotions, so they react. They react first to their own thoughts, but if their own thoughts don’t produce any strong emotions, they react to the emotions of others. They enjoy themselves around the life of the party, they feel drained when loved ones argue, they respond positively to attention and appreciation from others, and they feel insecure when others overlook or ignore them.
When you are deliberate with your emotions, you have the power to affect everyone. This doesn’t mean “faking” the emotion you want to create. But it does mean thinking the kinds of thoughts that allow positive emotions, like gratitude, to authentically emerge. And once they have emerged, allowing them to flow through you in your interactions with others, who will almost always respond positively, whether they realize it or not. If you feel genuine gratitude in a group of people, and interact with enough other members of the group while you are feeling it, you have the power to change the entire emotional state of the group.
This focus on gratitude works in a family, in a classroom, in a group of friends, and in a group of people at work. Why at work? You may have noticed yourself treating your boss like a parent, your employees acting like children, and peers that remind you of your siblings. In our teams at work, for better or worse, we replicate what we learned in our families.
And even if we act “professionally” on the outside, the underlying emotions feel very personal and all too familiar at times. Gratitude is an essential part of any professional success formula.The formula works just as powerfully in any group.
Here’s how gratitude can work for you:
1. Take the time to notice what you are genuinely grateful for
2. Make sure to really experience the gratitude at a physiological level. Notice your muscles relax, and your emotions change to compassion and appreciation.
3. Allow your compassion and appreciation to come out, both directly and indirectly, in your interactions at work.
4. Notice, over time, that people feel safer around you and that you build stronger, more trusting work relationships.
5. As a result of stronger, more trusting work relationships, notice your team extend themselves beyond the call of duty.
6. As a result of stronger, more trusting work relationships, notice your peers talking more honestly and directly with you.
7. As a result of stronger, more trusting work relationships, notice your boss relying on you more heavily for mission critical work, and providing you with more support.
Add that to the simple truth that gratitude lowers your stress and feels pretty darn good too; where do you get a more powerful business tool? Why is Thanksgiving my favorite holiday? High joy, low stress, and practice with important business success skills, all while enjoying a game of Candyland and a slice of pumpkin pie by the fire.
Who could ask for more?