Not feeling very thankful? If so, it’s your loss, says science.
Reviewing a handful of studies on the subject, Harvard Health contends that "gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships."
So it’s no wonder expressing gratitude is the first social habit most of us acquire. We’re taught to say thank you around the same time that we’re busy sorting out whether or not Play-Doh is food. The fact that so many of us struggle with the practice long into adulthood means we aren’t just disappointing our parents. We’re also hurting our health and careers.
These are a few of the more surprising benefits of being grateful.
According to a 2012 survey by the John Templeton Foundation, conveying thanks gives the strong impression that the thanker is successful.
Nearly all of the survey participants (94% of the women and 96% of the men) agreed that "a grateful boss is more likely to be successful," whereas just 18% "feel a grateful boss could be seen as weak." To be fair, that doesn’t quite mean—as the researchers assert—that "gratitude can lead to success." But it does highlight an important precondition for it. After all, impressions matter. For lower-level leaders who want to turn up their game, an aura of success can be a tool for exercising more authority and getting bigger things done.
Gratitude doesn't work like a seesaw. Just because your appreciation for others goes up doesn’t mean your self-estimation goes down. Quite the contrary, says author and emotional intelligence expert Howard Jacobson. "Living gratefully is probably the most selfish thing you can do," he writes. "In the moments when I am bathed in gratitude, for a caring gesture or a spectacular autumn morning, I feel phenomenal."
Put that way, it doesn’t even sound all that counterintuitive. And the positive feedback loop Jacobson describes can serve your self-interest in other ways, too—including at work. "You can take that selfishness even further," Jacobson adds. "When people notice that you thank them for their efforts, they'll naturally work even harder to please you in the future." You’ll feel like a shot-caller (points for your ego) and your colleagues and team members will feel valued (points for their egos). Everybody wins.
Read more: Gratitude As A Business Strategy
A couple of years ago, writer and nonprofit expert Allison Jones tried keeping a "gratitude journal." It was about as fun as that sounds. As Jones recalls, "It bored me and made me less grateful . . . About a week into keeping my journal, gratitude went from something I wanted to feel and instead became an emotion I needed to document."
So Jones moved from self-reflection to deliberate action. "Instead of focusing on the idea of gratitude, I’m much more specific about completing acts that demonstrate gratitude." The failed writing experiment led to a better one. It’s given her a new framework for setting goals—one that’s more about making others feel good than about her own feelings.
Now, Jones writes, "I’ve got a completely different approach. I break my goals for the week down into small pieces. At the end of the week, I look back at my goals and note the progress on each. If no progress was made, I note why."
In one recent study, psychologists found that being primed with gratitude can help us make longer-term decisions. Subjects who wrote about a time they felt grateful were more likely than other groups (who wrote about happy and neutral experiences, respectively) to opt for a check to be mailed to them later than for a smaller amount of cash immediately.
So the next time you’re up against a test of your willpower, think of something you’re thankful for. The exercise could help tamp down the part of your brain whining for instant gratification.
Read more: How Being Grateful Can Change Your Life