Gratitude means more than saying “thank you.” It’s a way of thinking that psychologists say is crucial to employee happiness and leads to success and bigger company profits. Gratitude is one of the tenets of positive psychology, a relatively new branch of theory that can help guide us in effective leadership skills that inspire and strengthen our workplace.
Shawn Achor in his TED Talk “The Happiness Advantage: Linking Positive Brains to Performance” begins with an anecdote in positive psychology from his childhood.
He was 7 at the time and got into some rough horseplay with his 5-year-old sister Amy. When she tumbled off a bunk bed and landed painfully on all fours, he saw a wail of pain beginning on her face. Thinking quickly, he said to her, “Did you see how you landed? No human lands on all fours like that. Amy, I think you’re a unicorn.” It was pure manipulation on his part, a tactic to quiet her down before their parents could hear her crying and blame him. But it worked. Faced with the exciting possibility that she was a unicorn, Amy forgot about the fall and forgot to be angry at her big brother.
“See, what we’re finding is it’s not necessarily the reality that shapes us, but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality,” Achor reflects now. In fact, he says only 10 percent of a person’s happiness is drawn from external forces.
This undermines our traditional formula for happiness, which Achor sums up as, “If I work harder, I’ll be more successful, and then I’ll be happier.”
The formula is “scientifically broken and backwards,” he says, because it constantly moves the goalpost of our happiness: “If happiness is on the opposite side of success, your brain never gets there.”
With a positive or even neutral outlook, “every single business outcome improves,” Achor says. Happiness — and its partner, gratitude — are better off not as end goals but as the method and path toward success.
Gratitude in this sense is more than the words of thanks you share with others, but a way to evaluate reality. Overall employee happiness is built from sharing and inspiring this holistic gratitude.
An Australian study found that fostering gratitude in the business-to-business franchise relationship makes for happier franchisees, more profits and smoother business. Scott Weaven, deputy director of Griffith University’s Asia-Pacific Centre for Franchising Excellence, told SmartCompany, “We found franchisors that engage in extra contractual activities actually engendered a lot of gratitude from franchisees and it made the system more functional,” he says. “Once you have a system that is functioning well and people are happy you are obviously going to have more commitment to the brand and people more likely to do the right thing.”
Gratitude, like happiness, is a tool that is self-sustaining. You can train your brain in gratitude or happiness much as you would train your body to build muscle, Achor says.
Maria Popova of Brain Pickings has a couple of great exercises to begin flexing those mental muscles. She presents the research and teachings of Martin E.P. Seligman, the founding father of positive psychology. For the first exercise, you’re asked to write a letter of gratitude to an important person from your past. The second happiness-building task, the “What-Went-Well Exercise,” involves writing down every night what went well that day, and why.
Popova says the exercises are “rooted in decades of Seligman’s acclaimed research and [bring] to practical life some of modern psychology’s most important findings.”
When was the last time you chose gratitude or happiness first and reversed the traditional formula for success? If you’ve tried Seligman’s exercises, what changes did it effect in your life or in other people?
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