Connect to Gratitude in Troubled Times

“It is not happiness that brings us gratitude. It is gratitude that brings us happiness.”

When I work with corporate clients or clients in my clinic who sight job-related stress as their biggest problem, I hear the same story. They often state that they would forgo a pay raise or bonus during troubled economic times in place of simple and genuine gratitude.

Do the important people in your life know how you feel about them? Sure we stop to say “thank you” on Administrative Assistants Day or remember to share best wishes on Birthdays.

The challenge in relationships, whether personal or professional, is to be present and show gratitude regularly.

Brain Science of Expressing & Receiving Gratitude

Taking a moment to pause for gratitude stimulates the reward center of the brain. When the reward center of the brain is stimulated, neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin are released. These “feel good” neurotransmitters promote happiness, a sense of well-being, and energy.

Scientific studies based in positive psychology show that people who are grateful lead happy lives. The same data translates to employees and successful marriages. When an employer expresses gratitude, they are more likely to have happier, healthier, and more productive employees. When spouses regularly express gratitude, they are more likely to have happy and sustaining marriages.

I ask you to pause and think of someone important to you in your life- your partner, employee, or colleague. Expressing gratitude doesn’t have to equate to spending a lot of time or money.

Here are three steps I teach clients and in “The brainSHIFT Protocol” to foster a sense of happiness in the workplace and a sense of belonging.

Pause for Gratitude in Your Life:

“I’m thankful for my health, my family, and the roof over my head…..And now is this gratitude exercise over? I have a to-do list to focus my attention on.”

Asking each other to express gratitude may feel like next-level basic brain science at this point in leadership training in the workplace. November rolls around, and everyone is starting a gratitude challenge on social media, hoping for more likes and hearts. But did you miss that brain buzz of feel-good hormones? You are not alone. Going through the gratitude challenge, mindlessly, can leave us feeling empty.

Two Words Stand in the Way of the Benefits of Gratitude:

If you are still waiting for the benefit or brain buzz of gratitude, could these two words be standing in your way? “Yeah, but…”

I’m thankful for my family, yeah, but we cannot all gather together this year for the holidays because of the pandemic.

I’m thankful for my job, yeah, but I’m doing the work of 3 people now due to layoffs in my company.

It is natural under challenging times to allow challenges to hang over our heads, leaving us to feel stress, worry, anxiety, guilt, or shame at the thought of being happy. What if we reframed the necessity of expressing gratitude?

Expressing gratitude helps us to build emotional resilience in our brains. We can feel gratitude and be happy while understanding that not every aspect of our lives is pulled together. We can feel satisfied in our lives while acknowledging that there are severe troubles in the world.

Living a life of gratitude does not mean that we are in a bubble of false positivity, ignoring life’s realities outside of the bubble. Living in an actual state of gratitude means we can connect to feeling thankful despite the challenges of our lives and the world around us.

Pause for Gratitude Towards Others:

The three steps of expressing gratitude are: acknowledge, affirm, and appreciate. An essential component around expressing gratitude is to let saying “thank you” stand alone. Do not follow up with a “gratitude gift” with a task, ask, or constructive feedback.

1. Acknowledge

We often walk around mindlessly focused on our never-ending to-do lists. We are not present and may not notice the extra effort our partner, employee, or friend put into a simple task to better our lives. So the first step is to be present at this current moment.

Then notice the seemingly small or ordinary tasks like your husband helped you with the dishes after dinner even though he may be as tired as you are after a long day at work. OR 2. your employee stayed late at work to complete a project for an important deadline.

We can assume this is an expected duty of that person, but this is not the case. We may not realize it, but when someone is continuously “showing up” and not acknowledged, they will feel as if they are being taken for granted. It doesn’t matter that the task is in their job description or expected duty as a spouse. That person had a choice to be present and complete that task. The first step in shifting to an attitude of gratitude is acknowledgment.

2. Affirm

You have now acknowledged the person who made an effort to share a part of themselves in your mind. Perhaps your administrative assistant noticed your busy schedule and brought you your favorite type of latte without you asking for it. Now learn to affirm.

When we affirm someone, we are stating a fact in a method that offers emotional support or encouragement.

How? Be positive, concrete, and specific. You have noticed the action and now follow through with an expression that you acknowledge someone’s compassion and kindness.

To follow through on our example with our AA, “Thank you for noticing how busy my schedule was today, and bringing me my favorite chai tea spice latte.”

3. Appreciate

After offering the acknowledgment and sharing a positive affirmation for a gesture from a particular person, we continue with appreciation. How is this different than acknowledging and affirming?

To express gratitude is to fully recognize the value, price, or implications of that object or person. It is as simple as saying two words. Thank you. The words “thank you”, are so simple and yet so undervalued in our over-scheduled lives.

Let us finish with the example above of your AA, who brought us our favorite latte. “I want you to know how much I appreciate your thoughtfulness in taking care of small details in my busy day so that I have a moment to stop, breathe, and refocus.”


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