It’s the time of year when invites to work holiday parties arrive in our inboxes. Beginning with Thanksgiving, we enter a season that welcomes us to reflect, take stock, and express gratitude for the past 12 months. As we juggle tasks to wrap up the year and prepare for the next, gratitude can feel superfluous and even forced. Yet if we can define gratitude in our lives and cultivate a practice of thankfulness year-round, it will not only bolster our happiness and creativity, but sustain us through busy seasons full of demands and expectations.
There are two components of gratitude, according to psychologist and UC Davis professor Robert Emmons. First, it’s an affirmation that there are good things in the world. This doesn’t mean we don’t acknowledge reality, but that we accept the dualities of life, knowing there can be challenges, burdens, and hardships and “gifts and benefits” we’ve also received. It’s about looking at our lives holistically and seeing goodness where it exists.
Emmons explains that the second part of gratitude is “figuring out where that goodness comes from.” He goes on to note that, “We recognize the sources of this goodness as being outside of ourselves. It didn’t stem from anything we necessarily did ourselves in which we might take pride…We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.”
Gratitude at Work
When was the last time you acknowledged the good in your work life? It could come in the form of genuine appreciation for a boss who recognizes your talents, a colleague who covered for you during vacation, or perhaps it comes in the form of a new client project or another opportunity to grow professionally. Simply having made progress toward team goals during a given day can also be a source of gratitude. When you felt appreciation, did you express it, either privately to yourself or publicly to others? If you answered yes, you’re in the minority.
Research shows that most of us are less likely to express gratitude at work than anywhere else, according to a survey of 2,000 participants conducted by the John Templeton Foundation. While 94% of women and 96% of men agree that a grateful boss is more likely to be successful, 74% never or rarely express gratitude to their boss. Yet people are eager for their boss to appreciate them—70% said they would feel better about themselves if their boss expressed gratitude for them, and 81% said they would work harder.
Someone has to go first. If we want to be more appreciated, we could start with expressing our appreciation. Even if we don’t feel grateful, we can lean into it. In this New York Times article, by social scientist Arthur C. Brooks, he notes that acting grateful can lead to actually feeling grateful. Further, he encourages us to start with interior gratitude, or “the practice of giving thanks privately.” Next, he suggests public expression of gratitude, which could include emails or thank you cards to colleagues. Finally, he urges us to be grateful for seemingly insignificant things, like a warm, sunny day or a smile from a stranger on the street.
Although we express gratitude the least at work, gratitude in the workplace can be transformative. As the HeartMath Institute notes, “The greater your capacity for sincere appreciation, the deeper the connection to your heart, where intuition and unlimited inspiration and possibilities reside.” This can lead to increased creativity. As Steven Kramer and Teresa Amabile note in their book, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, feeling accomplished and appreciated can lead to greater internal motivation and “when people are more intrinsically motivated, they are more likely to be creative.”
Further supporting the theory that gratitude improves our work lives, Kim Cameron and his colleagues at the University of Michigan found that workplaces characterized by positive practices, including expressing gratitude increased positive emotions in employees, which amplified their creativity and ability to think creatively. Whether you are a company of one or one of many, gratitude can boost your creativity and increase your happiness at work.
Tips for Putting Gratitude into Practice Year-Round
Practicing gratitude year round, not just during the holidays, can have a positive, lasting impact on your creativity and career. Building a sustainable practice can start with small steps integrated into your existing life:
- Shift your focus. In his book, Consolations, the poet and author David Whyte reminds us that, “Being unappreciative might mean we are simply not paying attention.” Gratitude can start with simply setting an intention and looking for things to be grateful for in your day-to-day rather than focusing on negative aspects of our work. For example, if you had a challenging problem come up at work, perhaps you can be grateful that you have the skills to address it or the power to change it.
- Build gratitude into your routine. It doesn’t take much time to develop a robust practice. You could set aside 15 minutes once a week to make a list of what you are grateful for. Or you could make it part of your nightly routine to say thank you for one part of your day. As a coach, I encourage my clients to use these prompts if they’re stuck: What opportunities have arisen for you this week? What accomplishments or small wins have you had? Pro tip: Put time for this kind of reflection on your calendar to automate check-ins.
- Rule out negativity. The people around us and the environments we spend time in influence us. That includes ourselves! Start by reframing negative self-talk. For example, “I’m no good at this. I can’t get the hang out it,” could be reframed as, “This is hard, but I’m learning and I’ll get the hang of it with time and practice.” If there are relationships or spaces ruled by negativity, consider how to address them. You could demonstrate gratitude and see if the tone of conversations changes, you could confront the negativity directly, or you could remove yourself from the situation. If you can’t remove yourself because it’s at work, for example, you could set boundaries like refusing to participate in negative gossip.
- Show your appreciation. Just as negativity can be contagious, so can gratitude and appreciation. In this episode of the podcast Hurry Slowly, psychologist and author Adam Grant suggests setting aside time each week to show appreciation through a note, card, or email: “Would you have guessed that just the words ‘thank you’ would be enough to not only lead to a 50% increase that they’re willing to help you again, but also then make them more likely to help somebody else who reaches out?”
- Keep it real. Yes, there’s usually something we can find to be grateful for, but don’t force it. Do your best to express your gratitude while still accepting the complexities that exist. Your gratitude doesn’t negate the challenges, difficulties, or realities of your situation, but it can give you a foundation for resilience as you move forward.
Developing a gratitude practice takes time and patience, but the power of thankfulness can shift your attitude toward your work and make the process more creative, innovative, and fulfilling—not just during the holidays, but all year long. In the words of the late poet, Mary Oliver, “Pay attention. / Be astonished. / Tell about it.” Look for it, feel gratitude for it, and express it.