You are feeling stressed and have too many responsibilities with too little time. You manage to complete a project and are on the verge of burning out — and then someone looks you in the eyes and says, “Thanks.” Suddenly, you have the energy to tackle the next project on your list.

Why does this happen? How does gratitude have such a profound effect on our psychological and physical wellbeing, and how can you, as a business leader, harness it for the good of your workforce?

Gratitude Relieves the Pressure of Toxic Emotions

A study from Berkeley asked a group of 300 mentally ill adults to participate in a writing exercise to explain their emotional state in addition to receiving counselling. One group was asked to focus their letters on gratitude, thanking someone for helping their mental health in some way. As the writing exercise progressed, the group tasked with gratitude letters steadily used fewer negative emotion words, a more significant number of positive emotion words and “we” words signifying their identification with a social group. Twelve weeks following the writing exercise, those who created gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health than the other group, though both received equivalent counselling.

This experiment demonstrates that gratitude is good for mental health. Researchers believe the process of expressing gratitude is beneficial because it allows a person to focus their emotional energy away from toxic emotions like resentment and envy. Furthermore, gratitude does not need to be shared to have these positive effects. In the study, only 23 percent of participants sent their gratitude letters to their intended recipients, but those who kept their gratitude to themselves benefited just the same.

When you and those around you are feeling stressed, you might focus on feeling grateful for the advantages available to you and your company. You can choose to keep your gratitude to yourself, but doing so might deprive others of the opportunity to reframe their thoughts and avoid dwelling on negative emotions.


Gratitude Takes Time to Work Its Magic

The two groups participating in writing exercises had no discernable differences a week into the experiment in the study described above. It took roughly a month for the groups to report differences in their mental health. After three months, there was a vast improvement for the gratitude letter writers but not for the other participant group members.

Gratitude takes practise; it is not a rapid cure for negative thoughts and feelings. The more you engage with gratitude, the more it can transform how you think. This is contrary to the effects of a few other standard practices for managing mental health, which tend to decrease effectiveness over time. Because gratitude offers a snowball effect of positivity, you need to be consistent with your expressions of gratitude. You and those around you might not benefit immediately from radically different thought processes. Still, over time, you should see improvements in morale from a consistent recognition program or another tool for sharing your appreciation with your employees.

Gratitude Fundamentally Changes the Brain

Twelve weeks from the start of the experiment, researchers performed fMRI scans on participants to receive more in-depth information about how expressing gratitude was affecting the structures of the brain. During the scan, participants were given a choice to donate money to a charitable cause.

The scans revealed that gratitude stimulates activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex — the areas of the brain associated with moral and social cognition, empathy and value judgment — as well as the hypothalamus, which is responsible for critical functions like appetite and sleep. Essentially, those who had practised gratitude through letter-writing could experience positive emotions from choosing to donate money to those in need. Those who were not in the habit of expressing gratitude were more likely to feel negative emotions, like guilt.

By shifting how your brain processes information, gratitude can psychologically protect you from negative experiences. You are more likely to sleep better, enjoy a healthy appetite, experience less inflammation and boast a more robust heart — all because you are in the habit of thanking your employees for their excellent, hard work.

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Hannah is a professional writer who loves to make research on unique topics and express her thoughts by content writing.