Gratitude – the ultimate performance-enhancing substance

March 27, 2019 Aaron Kinne

When it comes to gratitude, “you literally cannot overplay its hand,” according to Dr. Robert A. Emmons, professor of psychology at University of California, Davis.

In his Workhuman 2019 presentation, Dr. Emmons echoed a theme heard throughout the conference. “Gratitude is the ultimate touchpoint of human existence … and the ultimate performance enhancing substance,” he said.

Those are some pretty heady claims, but Dr. Emmons “walked the talk” with powerful data and research that supported his views.

How we define gratitude

According to Dr. Emmons, gratitude is “a celebration of the good – and a recognition that this good is sourced outside the self.” To him, gratitude is “the greatest of virtues.”

Interest in gratitude as a powerful driving force has a long and rich history. Dr. Emmons shared a quote from John Henry Jowett, an influential British Protestant preacher who lived from 1863 though 1923. Jowett observed, “Gratitude is a vaccine, an antitoxin, and an antiseptic.”

"Gratitude is a vaccine, an antitoxin, and an antiseptic." - John Henry Jowett

The science of gratitude

More recently, a large body of psychological, behavioral, and social research has identified the impact and power of gratitude with findings that have profound implications for creating a harmonious, humane, and productive workplace culture. Among them:

  • Gratefulness increases emotional well-being
  • Grateful people get along better with others
  • Grateful people are less depressed
  • Grateful people achieve more
  • Grateful people pay it forward
  • Grateful people are more resilient to trauma

In short, gratitude works. It has the power to heal, energize, change lives, and drive cultural change in the workplace. Not only does it have a positive impact on an emotional level, it has also been shown to manifest benefits physiologically as well:

  • 23% lower levels of cortisol in healthy volunteers
  • Lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers in heart failure (HF) patients
  • Increased heart rate variability (HRV) in HF patients
  • Greater physical activity (1,542 more steps per day) post-hospitalization
  • 20% reduction in diastolic blood pressure
  • Greater medical adherence

To better understand the dynamics – and science – of gratitude, Dr. Emmons shared the results of a May 2018 survey conducted by the National Research Corporation/NRC Health in collaboration with Accordant Philanthropy. Drawing on data from 18,413 respondents, the survey had some fascinating findings.

For instance, when asked what influenced their feelings of gratitude during their healthcare experience, the top response from 30% of respondents was the compassion, empathy, and kindness of their caregivers. This was followed by the outcome of their procedure or treatment (23%), and an accurate diagnosis (20%). In other words, the behavior of caregivers generated more feelings of gratitude than the success of the patients’ own personal treatment or diagnosis!

The survey then went on to ask patients their reasons for expressing gratitude to caregivers. Most (29%) responded “It makes me feel good to say thanks.” This was followed at 26% by “It makes other people feel good.”

What is interesting here is that – once again – the top answers far outstripped responses that might be viewed as more “self-centered” such as:

  • “It will encourage caregivers to be more attentive to my personal needs.” – 13%
  • “It will encourage caregivers to be kinder to me.” – 12%
  • “It will encourage caregivers to give me better care.” – 10%

Making other people feel good was a more powerful reason for expressing gratitude than the patients’ own chance to get more attention, more kindness, and better care.

Why gratitude matters at work

These findings demonstrate the dramatic power of gratitude and have powerful implications for the impact gratitude can have in shaping a workplace culture.

Why does gratitude work? To answer that question, Dr. Emmons shared the ART (Amplify, Rescue, Trust) model:

  1. Gratitude Amplifies; it turns up the volume
  2. Gratitude Rescues us from the bad
  3. Gratitude builds Trust because it more closely connects us with others

One of the most interesting – and misunderstood – aspects of gratitude is that its positive impact is frequently undervalued by the giver. As CEO Eric Mosley noted in his Workhuman 2019 keynote address, “Gratitude changes the giver. When you give gratitude, you are vulnerable and authentic."

Dr. Emmons cited a 2018 research article by Amit Kumar and Nicholas Epley from the Booth School of Business at The University of Chicago, entitled, “Understanding Gratitude: Expressers Misunderstand the Consequences of Showing Appreciation.”

In the course of this research, participants wrote gratitude letters and predicted how surprised, happy, and awkward the recipient would feel. Overwhelmingly, those expressing gratitude underestimated the impact gratitude would have on the recipient. And they consistently overestimated how awkward those same recipients would feel when receiving expressions of gratitude.  

The data on workplace gratitude

So what does this all mean for companies trying to drive a more human workplace culture?

Quite simply, when we make work more human by infusing gratitude into company culture through social recognition, it connects people to purpose – motivating and empowering them to do the best work of their lives. Being recognized by managers, peers, and direct reports makes employees feel acknowledged for who they are and what they do – and that makes them happier and more likely to stay.

When we make work more human by infusing gratitude into company culture through social recognition, it connects people to purpose.

Research from the IBM® Smarter Workforce Institute and the Workhuman® Analytics & Research Institute (WARI) shows that organizations that score in the top 25% on employee experience – companies that have a culture of gratitude driven by social recognition – report nearly 3x the return on assets and 2x the return on sales.

More research from WARI shows that the connections created by giving and receiving recognition to co-workers fosters a culture of positivity and can help every employee feel welcome. Or to put it another way, a greater number of positive relationships leads to a greater feeling of inclusion.

As Eric Mosley pointed out in his keynote, when someone asks the ideal number of gratitude moments to make an impact, we need only look at the data for our answer. “The right amount,” he said, “is more.”

About the Author

Aaron Kinne

Aaron Kinne is a senior writer at Workhuman.

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