Dave Ulrich explores the effects of gratitude on his life.
As the American Thanksgiving holiday approaches, I use it as an excuse to reflect on gratitude in my life. This is a more personal essay—hopefully with both leadership and personal implications—but written more to my family and myself.
My Mom and Dad modeled gratitude. After even ordinary events, Mom or Dad would often write “thank you” notes. I recently took Mom to a graduation dinner for our HR program in Park City, Utah, a rather routine event. The next day she sent an email: Thanks so much for a great evening! Good food, fun program, kind words! You're so good. Get some rest! Love you. Mom and Dad frequently expressed thanks for their blessings, for the service they received from others, and for the good things in their lives. Their messages of appreciation helped others feel better about themselves. Their public behavior reflected their private mindset of being grateful for their blessings. They exemplified how gratitude is both a behavior and a mindset.
Research has helped clarify some outcomes of gratitude, including:
- Less hostile and angry
- Less depressed
- Less emotionally vulnerable
- Less fearful of surroundings (phobia)
- Less dependent on others
- Less worried and anxious
- Less feelings of stress
- Less worried about the future
- More able to get along with others
- More kind (emotional warmth)
- More gregarious (friendly)
- More trusting
- More willing to give to others (altruism)
- More aware of personal feelings
- More focused on getting things done
- Improved sleep
- Better personal body image
- More religious
- More happiness
- More likely to exercise
(Wood, A. M., et al., Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration, Clinical Psychology Review (2010), doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.005)
Wow! These are all benefits I would like more of in my life. We may struggle to believe that something as simple as a “thank you” would help make these results happen. But when we are more grateful, we will see the positive effects. While expressing a simple thank you is important, gratitude is more than giving thanks and sending appreciative notes.
How can I increase my gratitude?
Gratitude increases through a series of specific exercises or behaviors:
- Make a gratitude list. I can make a list every night of three to five things I am grateful for that day. If I do this for a week, I will not only sleep better, I will have higher life satisfaction and lower depression.
- Gratitude letter. If I recall someone who did something positive for me in the past and send that person a personal gratitude note, my happiness increases for a month.
- Respond positively to family and friends. When something good happens for my personal acquaintances, I can celebrate, express active joy, and delight for their success—be as grateful for their success as I am for mine.
- Look for the good more than the bad. When I make five positive comments to every negative comment, I build relationships and focus on what is right more than what is wrong.
Gratitude also reflects a mindset where one focuses on the positive in relationships and challenges, is optimistic even in difficult situations, and expresses appreciation for what one has more than remorse for what one does not. Sometimes I am prone to focusing on what is wrong; I bemoan my lot; I criticize; I take things for granted. I was coaching a business leader who was feeling some alienation and despair. I asked this executive to tell me about things for which he was grateful; I also wanted him to remind himself from his journal of his remarkable progress in his personal and professional life. As he reflected on these good things, I could sense a discernable change in his demeanor. I need to remind myself to recognize my bounteous blessings and to express gratitude for them.
One of Dad’s favorite songs was “Count Your Blessings” (Johnson Oatman Jr.), which he would sing off-key and with gusto. Dad would often recount the blessings in his life. Likewise, I am grateful to have been blessed in so many ways:
- Family: I have a wonderful spouse (I cannot begin to elucidate my gratitude for Wendy), kids, grandkids, parents, and extended family. Not quite like the squeal of a granddaughter happy to see me!
- Friends: There are those whom I care for and who care for me. I don’t claim many close friends, but I am grateful for those who reciprocate my friendship.
- Professional networks: I am very blessed to be part of professional networks with noble people who want to help organizations move forward. Being part of RBL for 20 years and University of Michigan for 35 years has been such an honor.
Physical well-being: I am grateful for my physical opportunities, including a reasonably healthy (if heavy and aging) body and a remarkable physical setting in which to live and work.
Intellectual ability: I am blessed with the ability to ponder, anticipate, and learn. I don’t have the best mind, but it is good enough. Ideas continue to be my good friends and I am grateful for them.
Emotional stability: I am grateful for emotional constancy and grit. I have some social dysfunction, and I sometimes lack wisdom in making appropriate comments, but I think I am self-aware for the most part and am committed and able to learn and grow.
Professional success: I have had far more professional impact than I deserve and continue to be surprised by public acknowledgements. I have had incredible business partners I have worked with and co authors I have published with. They are a source of enduring delight.
Spiritual serenity: I am so blessed with feelings of personal peace and access to the presence of the divine. I am not always sure what being spiritual means, but I seek, access, and welcome the divine spirit in my life.
Daily joys: I live in a newness of life each day, which is a marvelous blessing to experience daily renewal and to find joy in simple moments like a sunrise or sunset, a somewhat routine conversation with Mom, watching grandchildren, seeing someone perform well in a chosen vocation (ahem, a good basketball game), wandering around a grocery store with Wendy doing errands, reading an interesting novel, or eating a fresh cookie.