We have all probably had someone tell us as kids to be “grateful for what you’ve got”, and the idea of “giving thanks” has been taught in churches and schools for years.
But in the world of coaching gratitude is more than just giving thanks, it is an intentional practice, one that is backed by scientific research and an ever increasing awareness of the benefits of an ‘attitude of gratitude’.
Source: Audio extracted from ICA’s Module ‘Gratitude’
Gratitude reduces a multitude of toxic emotions, ranging from envy and resentment to frustration and regret. Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., a leading gratitude researcher, has conducted multiple studies on the link between gratitude and well-being. His research confirms that gratitude effectively increases happiness and reduces depression.
And gratitude increases mental strength. For years, research has shown gratitude not only reduces stress, but it may also play a major role in overcoming challenging life events. Recognizing all you have to be thankful for – even during the toughest times of your life – fosters resilience.
The idea that gratitude was something one could “choose” to develop really began around the same time as Positive Psychology took off.
Positive psychology is the ‘scientific study of optimal human functioning [that] aims to discover and promote the factors that allow individuals and communities to thrive’. - Martin Selgman
Unlike traditional psychology, positive psychology is less focused on the problems a client has and less concerned with digging back into the past to resolve them. Rather it is more focused on how general happiness and well being can be improved. As a field it can be described as ‘the scientific study of happiness.’
It is within this context then that gratitude began to get attention. Researchers and practitioners alike saw that by adopting gratitude practices, a person’s happiness and satisfaction could be measurably improved.
The Benefits of Gratitude
There are many benefits of gratitude, and several scientific studies to back them up. The Happier Human website lists 30 benefits, including:
- Strengthening emotions
- Improving sleep
- Reducing a focus on materialism (and increasing a focus on spiritualism)
- Reducing feelings of envy
- Improving productivity
There is also evidence to suggest that an intentional practice of gratitude can change the brain by affecting the hypothalamus, which is the part of our brain that regulates bodily functions like our appetites, sleep, temperature, metabolism and growth. And like most things that affect the brain, it can also be addictive – which is good news for those people who groan at the thought of keeping a Gratitude Journal.
Like many things that are good for us, it seems that deliberate focus and daily practice of gratitude can eventually create a desire to continue, even if we were reluctant to begin with The article “Health Benefits of Gratitude: 6 Scientifically Proven Ways Being Grateful Rewires Your Brain + Body for Health” by Conciouslifestylemag.com talks about the effect Gratitude can have on the brain, and highlights some of the main benefits.
Elements of Gratitude
A natural extension of gratitude is generosity. Grateful people notice the contribution of others to their success. They see when others are behaving at their best and, when others make mistakes, they look behind the mistake to the other person’s intent. They give others “the benefit of the doubt”. They so clearly see the “gifts” that others give them that they automatically want to give something back.
Generosity is about dynamic exchange, the act of giving and of receiving. In giving you create a dynamic exchange in that you also open yourself up to receiving. Giving creates confidence in giving. The more you receive the more you will give.
One of the most powerful strategies is acknowledgement. By acknowledging how far you have come, you not only encourage yourself to strive further, but you actually force yourself to stop, recognize and enjoy the wonderful things that you have achieved. Reflect for a moment and recognize the positive things in your life and the things that you have done to make these things happen. Acknowledge others around you.
Most coaches have heard about the story of the 2 wolves. It is a story attributed to native American origins and tells the tale of a grandfather using a metaphor of two wolves. The wolves represent his inner conflicts are fighting within him. When his grandson asks which wolf wins, the grandfather answers whichever he chooses to feed.
A metaphor often used to demonstration that in life is that we have both negative and positive experiences, both negative and positive thoughts (https://www.virtuesforlife.com/two-wolves/). The thoughts and experiences we get more of are most likely the ones we focus on or give attention to. Gratitude is a great tool to help us focus on the positive thoughts and experiences.
Noticing and being appreciative of what you already have in life, or what you haven’t had to endure can also be great vehicles of gratitude. Sheryl Sandberg talks about the death of her husband Dave. They were on holidays in Mexico and he died suddenly and unexpectedly from cardiac arrest whilst working out at the gym.
One day my friend Adam Grant, a psychologist, suggested that I think about how much worse things could be. This was completely counterintuitive; it seemed like the way to recover was to try to find positive thoughts. “Worse?” I said. “Are you crazy? How could things be worse?” His answer cut straight through me: “Dave could have had that same cardiac arrhythmia while he was driving your children.” Wow. The moment he said it, I felt overwhelming gratitude that my family was alive. That gratitude overtook some of the grief. Sheryl Sandberg, The Boston Globe
There is not a whole lot written about grief and gratitude but there are select articles that demonstrate the role it can play and helping someone grieve. It seems that by turning the focus, even just for small moments each day, on positive thoughts and feelings around the bereaved person the days can be easier and resilience can be developed.
Gratitude is especially key for coaches because in addition to any specific goals a client might come to us with, we are ultimately employed to support clients to enhance their happiness, productivity and life satisfaction. We also have a powerful role to play in supporting our clients to not only have a better life but to love the life they have.
Highly grateful people have a worldview in which everything they have and life itself is a gift—this leads to a different interpretation of experience: not taking things for granted, not getting used to positive conditions. Robert Emmons, quoted in The New Republic
The adoption of Gratitude as a practice, or even as a world view as Robert Emmons suggests, can help us achieve both these outcomes for our clients. We can support them to increase their happiness, and at the same time we can help them appreciate the happiness they already have (but might not recognize)