Be thankful for the power of gratitude

With Thanksgiving coming up in the U.S., and the new year right around the corner, it’s a time to reflect and give thanks for all that we have. But what if we considered our fortunes beyond just the holidays and expressed gratitude year round? Can we become more grateful?

Think of a time when something really good happened to you-- you landed a new job, you had a great dinner with a friend, you took an amazing vacation. At the time, you probably thought, “I am so happy and thankful I get this experience”.

When you first experience something that makes you happy, you pay attention. The positive emotions and the newness of the experience make it easy to acknowledge that something really good has happened, triggering a sense of gratitude. However, people are incredibly good at becoming habituated and it’s easy to forget that initial happiness. Do you feel as grateful on day 657 of that not-so-new job as you did the day you found out you got it?

Research has shown that this process of getting used to the “good stuff” is a common human condition. In Google’s People Analytics group, we wanted to know how to keep the happiness flowing. We looked to positive psychology literature and landed on gratitude. Gratitude is defined as “being aware and thankful for the good things that happen” and researchers have shown that being grateful is related to higher levels of happiness and subjective well being.

At Google, we tested out some of these questions in our longitudinal social science survey, gDNA. Modeled after the decades-long Framingham heart study, the goal of gDNA is to get a comprehensive understanding of how people thrive at work over time so we can help improve the work lives of everyone. We found that people who reported feeling lots of gratitude tended to view the world in a more positive light in general, scoring higher on everything from job satisfaction, to having fun at work, to satisfaction with compensation.

While we are excited to discover that people who seem to have dispositions that make them more grateful overall tend to be happier and more satisfied, we want everyone to be able to experience the positive effects of gratitude. But can we help people adjust their focus so each day they see more of the “good stuff” that has become background noise?

Many researchers believe that we can indeed nudge people and that gratitude is like a muscle-- the more you use it, the stronger it becomes. The secret to tapping into the benefits of gratitude is surprisingly straightforward: you just need to practice. You don’t need to change your personality or your environment, research shows that just keeping a daily gratitude journal is a great way to get started. Write down one to three things you’re thankful for each day. It tends to work better if you get specific, research shows. If journaling is not your thing, try to work gratitude into your daily life-- take a moment to send a quick email to a coworker who went above and beyond, sincerely thank that barista who makes your morning coffee, or write a postcard to a friend listing the ways you're thankful for their friendship. Gratitude grows when you spread it around!

So instead of writing each day “I’m thankful for my coworkers” say “I’m grateful for how my coworker Jane stopped to ask me to coffee and the great conversation we had there.”

As we enter this season of thanks, take a moment to reflect and refocus your attention on all the things in your life that are going well. Write it down or just make a toast, you may find the benefits you reap last long into the new year.