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Why Is Gratitude So Difficult, Yet Outrage So Easy?

At a time of year that reminds us to be grateful, brain science explains why we aren’t quick to say thanks.

Why Is Gratitude So Difficult, Yet Outrage So Easy?
[Illustration: Rawpixel/iStock]

Our brains are at odds with the concept of Thanksgiving. Gratitude should be the order of the day (and every day if you subscribe to the notion that giving thanks daily can make you happier), yet we are much more likely to be outraged by traffic delays, rude people, and a barrage of headlines blaring the latest bad news.

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“Part of the reason we are so quick to be outraged, yet slow to offer gratitude at work and in life, more broadly, is because of the widespread finding that human beings possess a negativity bias,” says Christian Thoroughgood, assistant professor of psychology at Villanova University.  He says that even when they’re of equal intensity, negative events and experiences have a much more potent effect on our thoughts, emotions, and behavior than do neutral or positive events and experiences.

“Being yelled at by your supervisor is likely to cause you to become much more angry and upset,” he says, “than a client reaching out to express their gratitude to you would make you feel happy and joyful.” In fact, Thoroughgood says, research on employees’ daily work experiences finds that daily frustrations and upsets are five times more impactful on employees’ emotions than daily uplifts.

The reason lies deep within our brain and hasn’t evolved much past the point when we were hunter-gatherers. Back then, humans were fine-tuned to sniff out a simple shift in the wind that could signal a serious situation. Most of the time the threat wasn’t there, but the high alert meant the difference between survival or death. Although that’s no longer the case, the amygdala, our little caution center in the brain, is still hard at work sifting through all available information to surface danger.


Related: The Surprising Benefits Of Gratitude


But now there’s much more information to process on a daily basis than there was when our eyes scanned the horizon for potential threats like a predator, fire, or storm. However, that firehose of information still gets funneled through the amygdala.

Is it any wonder then that with our daily work/life stress combined with the constant onslaught of horrific headlines of mass shootings and sexual assault, outrage dominates our consciousness? 

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As Thoroughgood observes, “We don’t think to be grateful because we’re often too preoccupied thinking about what has recently gone wrong.”

Obviously centuries of brain conditioning is tough to overcome, but some professionals are actively trying to combat it.

Anthony Stephan, a principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP, believes in digging to find the source of the outrage first. “Do I experience less than desirable conversations at work and in our communities? Sure,” he says. The way Stephan sees it, outrage, or even emotional outbursts and intense levels of engagement, are often brought on when fears driven by insecurities and unresolved questions of self-worth and value are coupled with the expectations we have about situations and people’s behaviors.

Stephan says he focuses on trying to be empathetic . “It is essential that we give grace to others, operate with faith in the human spirit, and remain patient as others sometimes allow their inner voices to play out in a public arena.”

He also believes that self-awareness is the most critical aspect that will help us make the shift from outrage to gratitude. “We can build self-awareness through reflection,” he contends, adding that he’s made it a daily habit. “Some of our greatest growth comes from the ability to sit and reflect, with vulnerability and courage, to lean into and learn from our experiences,” says Stephan.


Related: The Science Of Gratitude And Why It’s Important In Your Workplace

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Many companies have long valued the development approach that focuses on the things we need to get better at versus focusing on our strengths, says Autumn Manning, cofounder and CEO of the employee engagement platform, YouEarnedItBut, she notes, not enough companies have a good process in place to easily distribute positive feedback about people and teams. Fixing it can be fairly simple by starting to make a habit of highlighting the strengths of others early and often.

“Executives can even take it a step further by emphasizing within their company how positive reinforcement leads to positive business outcomes,” says Manning, with no criticism allowed. “Make sure you are clearly highlighting the good behaviors much more often than the bad to help reinforce that habit,” she advises, by scheduling weekly or monthly check-ins with teams or employees to tell them how much they’ve helped the business and how their work reflects your core values and positive business outcomes. Save the constructive feedback for one-on-one meetings, Manning underscores.

In anticipation of the holidays, the managers at Lucidcharta diagramming software company, decided that instead of distributing a “thank you for your work” gift, they would make individual flowcharts to thank each employee. Last year, Lucidchart’s senior brand messaging specialist Libby Thomas remembered how the creative team spent hundreds of hours writing, designing, and promoting a marketing campaign of pop culture flowcharts. “We lived and breathed those charts for months,” she recalls. Then, in December, the manager handed each member of the team an identical package. Yet inside the package, there was a completely unique personalized flowchart featuring inside jokes and compliments specific to each employee. “It was honestly one of the most thoughtful and fun gifts I’ve ever received,” Thomas says, “and it came from my boss.”

Libby Thomas [Photo: courtesy of Libby Thomas]
Karl Sun, Lucid Software’s CEO and cofounder, maintains it’s about teamwork over ego. “Our emphasis on being a team has actually empowered individuals throughout the organization to create a sense of appreciation and gratitude in the office not through words, but through actions,” Sun says. He explains that the company has a special budget set aside so that teams can get together for fun outside of the office.

“Our thinking is that if you get to know your coworkers and care about them,” Sun maintains, “you work harder to help your friends and are more grateful for the work they’ve done for you.” He says this is also demonstrated in grand gestures, like when one engineer rallied the company to raise money for one of her coworkers (and friend), whose family had been affected by Hurricane Harvey. “I’m willing to go the extra mile on projects,” says Thomas, “because my coworkers are also my genuine friends.”

And as Manning notes, gratitude is also good for retention. “Employees who feel appreciated stick around longer, and actively engage in their work,” she says. “You’ve highlighted the behaviors and people who are doing the things that actually drive the business forward.”

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This begets a virtuous cycle. Says Manning: “They keep the appreciation flowing to their fellow employees through a culture of positive recognition.”

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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