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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

How practicing gratitude can benefit your company

Embrace gratitude, and start sharing it today.

How practicing gratitude can benefit your company
[nimito / Adobe Stock]

Corporate culture is a mighty force. It shapes companies and employees and directly impacts the success of businesses and the customers they serve. At the heart of it all, culture shapes the character of a company. And character drives fulfillment, mission, and results. So how do you shape company culture? It’s simple—through gratitude.

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My friend, Emily Fletcher, author of Stress Less, Accomplish More, and the founder of a well-known meditation studio here in New York City, once wrote about gratitude as a “natural antidepressant.” She wrote that gratitude produces feelings of contentment by rewiring our brain at the neurotransmitter level.

Research shows that gratitude also can help us cope with stress. According to UC Davis, “Gratitude is related to 23 percent lower levels of stress hormones (cortisol).” We can use gratitude to decrease our stress levels by shifting our mindset from negative and anxious to positive and grateful.

On top of lowering stress hormones, gratitude—like meditation—impacts the brain in many ways. In the short-term, practicing gratitude releases the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, which are crucial for pleasure, decision making, and our mood. Our technology keeps current news events one swipe away, dominating our attention span and leaving us in a constant state of stress and overwhelm. When our system is in a constant state of stress, we are depleting our dopamine levels at a rapid pace. Gratitude allows us to slow down enough to replenish those reservoirs of serotonin and dopamine.

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Practicing gratitude can have lasting impacts on the brain. Specifically, those who practice gratitude have greater neural sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain area associated with learning and decision making. Emily wrote, “The more you stimulate these neural pathways through practicing gratitude, the stronger and more automatic they become. On a scientific level, this is an example of Hebb’s Law, which states ‘neurons that fire together wire together.'” The more times a certain neural pathway is activated (neurons firing together), the less effort it takes to stimulate the pathway the next time (neurons wiring together). Because of this, what we put our attention on grows.

In 2016, researchers at Indiana University used fMRI technology to study brain activity while people performed a “pay it forward” task. Participants who were given money from a benefactor were invited to contribute as much or as little as they liked to a charitable cause. The study found that when people felt more grateful toward their benefactors, they gave more generously to charity. This suggests that people who are more grateful are also more likely to show gratitude to others.

In addition, studies have shown that gratitude has emerged as one of the strongest themes for quality of life following an invasive surgery, like an organ transplant. One example is my girlfriend Molly’s sister, Hope. Hope was born with spina bifida and a Chiari malformation. She has had hundreds of surgeries in her life and uses a wheelchair. She’s also a childhood cancer survivor.

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I share all of Hope’s health concerns because she is a beacon of gratitude, even in tough times. When Hope was a kid, her doctors commented that she was able to recover more quickly than anyone in the pediatric unit they’d ever seen battle cancer—probably because she was perpetually grateful.

When we transitioned to producing virtual gratitude experiences during the pandemic, we had the opportunity to invite Hope to a number of the experiences. The first time I asked Hope our signature gratitude question, “If you could give credit or thanks to one person in your life that you don’t give enough credit or thanks to, who would that be?” she struggled to figure out who she has never thought to thank because she has been grateful for everybody. Gratitude is her default.

Gratitude is not the mushy concept people often view it as. It can lead to a number of benefits for your company. It can bring fulfillment, joy, and a tangible ROI. When expressed intentionally, gratitude breeds empathy and greater understanding and even fosters collaboration that provides a direct return on investment. Practicing gratitude internally with your team and externally with clients can happen in a number of ways—big and small.

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Here are some ideas on how to show more gratitude:

• First, ask our favorite question whenever the opportunity arises: “If you could give credit or thanks to one person in your life that you don’t give enough credit or thanks to, who would that be?” Odds are, the people you haven’t thought to thank are not too dissimilar from the people others haven’t thought to thank. When you witness colleagues giving gratitude to people, you are more willing to be helpful or affiliate yourself with them going forward.

• Offer gratitude to yourself (we’re often hardest on ourselves).

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• Give grace to colleagues when they miss deadlines.

• Extend gratitude to clients and customers who have been loyal.

• Recognize someone’s accomplishment or good deed in your next meeting.

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