Last night I gave a talk on the topic of gratitude. It is one of the VIA character strengths and defined as “being aware of and thankful for the good things that happen; taking time to express thanks”. It also happens to be one of the top 5 strengths linked to wellbeing and increasing satisfaction in life. What makes gratitude so powerful are the many dimensions it covers and how easy it can be.
A simple task
I gave my audience a simple 3-step task, and I invite you to join in as you read this.
Step 1: Imagine a situation where you are out and about – maybe at a conference, a restaurant or an airport – and you need to use the bathroom. How many of you would appreciate finding the toilets clean? My audience agreed unanimously that they would definitely appreciate a clean toilet, and they would notice whether or not it was clean. I assume so would you.
Step 2: Often in these places there is cleaning staff around, maybe a janitor wiping around the sinks, but basically going about their job. How often did you notice someone stopping and thanking them for keeping the toilets clean? Nobody raised their hands in my audience this time. Have you?
Step 3: Of course, we could argue that the cleaners are paid to do that, as is the attentive waiter at a restaurant – but they could also do their job badly! If we appreciate a job well done or a kindness or gesture, how much effort does it take us to turn to the person and say: “Thank you for keeping the toilet clean”, or: “Thank you, I really appreciate you doing that.” It takes less than 5 seconds and it doesn’t cost a penny.
Let’s puzzle out what is happening in such a moment and why gratitude is so powerful.
First of all, you need to be aware of job well done or an act of kindness. Noticing in the moment and appreciating a positive experience automatically increases your own wellbeing.
Second, you are connecting with the other person by putting into words what you observe and how you feel about it (i.e. grateful); basically, you give them positive feedback and lay the foundation for a positive social connection – another source of wellbeing.
Third, look at the person as you thank them and observe their reaction. Maybe they smile, maybe they look perplexed because this is a new thing, maybe they just stand a little bit taller. In all likelihood, it is a positive experience for the other person too.
Fourth, as you observe the other person’s response, how does that make you feel? Maybe it makes you smile as well, maybe it warms your heart.
Fifth, now both of you are feeling happier. How do you think it will affect how you continue on your paths today? Even if you never see that person again, quite possibly the cleaner or the waiter will feel more motivated or go about their work with a smile. Since you feel happier too, maybe the meeting with your client will start on a more positive note or you will greet your family with a smile instead of being hassled by the commute.
The wide benefits that the experience and expression of gratitude can have are priceless.
Make it a habit
Gratitude is like a muscle, it becomes stronger the more we use it. So here is your gratitude-muscle exercise programme for you.
1. Awareness: The key to making it work is not that you now run around and start thanking everyone in your path. The crucial thing is that you NOTICE when something you appreciate is done. So as a first step, start paying attention to the many things that happen around you daily and that you may not notice as you rush through your day normally. I’m not just talking about waiters etc, but how about the colleague who picks up your documents at the printer with his and brings them to you? You can also practise noticing by writing down every day 3 good things that you have noticed today.
2. Focus on the what: It doesn’t matter whether you know or like the person who performs the act you are grateful for. The important thing is what they do and that they do it.
3. Become gracious: Let’s face it, we are not in the habit of expressing gratitude personally. This is not about leaving a tip or give a 5-star review on your app of choice. This is about looking another human being in the eye, and maybe we feel embarrassed about expressing this feeling of gratitude. To become more comfortable, start out by looking at them and saying “thank you” like you mean it – it doesn’t take more. With time you will become more gracious and comfortable.
Why did I decide to share my talk with you? Well, as I explained there is sound scientific reason for raising awareness for the power of “thank you”.
But what really made me write this was a little feedback note a lady from the audience handed me in the break. I only read it after I got home but if I needed to remember how the waiter or the cleaner may feel, then this was it:
Because the topics of my talks are invariably around anything positive psychology, wellbeing and happiness, I naturally hope that my audience may find something in my talks that empowers them to change their lives for the better. But for all I know, they may just walk out and forget all about it. But then I get a little note like this – and it makes me smile, it warms my heart, it makes me put continued effort in what I do – and it made me write this blog.
What are you waiting for?
Gratitude is that easy – and so powerful! So, start to practise your gratitude muscle. Unlike other workouts, you don’t need a gym kit, you don’t need lots of time and you won’t even break sweat. The psychological and physical benefits that gratitude can have, are manifold – it’s not just you who benefits, but the people around you too. So what are you waiting for?
 Source: Niemiec, R. M. (2018). Character Strengths Interventions: A field guide for practitioners. p.142, Hogrefe Publishing.