Gratitude is a choice

Exciting new research touts the benefits of experiencing gratitude -- includng a greater sense of well-being, mental health, better learning and decision making.

After reading some of the initial research on the power of gratitude over a decade ago, I began incorporating little triggers into my everyday life to stimulate my experience of gratitude. For example, I upgraded my signature to “With gratitude, Susan Fowler.” I discovered that writing an email containing negative, controversial or critical comments rang hollow and inauthentic as I typed my “With gratitude” signature. That realization still motivates me to completely rewrite the email to express myself using more constructive language. Writing “With gratitude” dozens of times a day adds up to a day of gratitude.

A little trick I’ve used for almost 20 years comes from Alexandra Stoddard’s book "Living a Beautiful Life." When paying bills, I write: “It is a pleasure to” above the “Pay to” line on the check (yes, I still pay some bills using checks). I also add the “With gratitude” above my signature.

These simple additions shift my mind set -- I’m grateful that I can pay my bill or that I’m grateful to the person or organization that provided me with a valuable service or product. If I don’t get that feeling of gratitude, it is a red flag that the expense was unnecessary and needs to be reconsidered in the future or is unfair and needs to be dealt with or accepted with grace.

I am thrilled that recent research validates my personal experience. But, I’m also concerned that as solid science becomes popular knowledge, misperceptions or misleading interpretations about gratitude get perpetuated through articles and blogs. You can develop the skill of gratitude, so, accurately representing the practice of gratitude is important.

Not all gratitude is created equal

If you feel grateful, ask yourself why. What is the source of your gratitude? If you are grateful for receiving a gift, is it because the gift satisfied a material need for acquisition or because being on the gift-giver’s list gives you a sense of status or power?

These reasons for being grateful reflect an external form of motivation considered suboptimal. The reasons you are grateful reflect your values; for example, values related to materialism and ego-gratification. This type of gratitude tends not to be deeply satisfying, doesn’t nurture the psychological needs required for you to flourish, and quickly dissipates.

However, if you receive a gift and are grateful for the gift giver’s thoughtfulness, your gratitude reflects a form of motivation based on higher-quality values such as friendship, loyalty, compassion, understanding or demonstrating kindness. Your appreciation generates feelings of gratitude that are deeply satisfying, nurture your psychological needs -- especially for relatedness, and are long-lasting.

Gratitude is best when you are grateful for someone rather than for something.

Expressing gratitude is different than praising

Praising someone means they did something that pleased you and your hope they keep on doing it. Public recognition is often meant to send a message to others that they’ll get recognized if they do the same thing.

Praising and recognition are contingent. They depend on your opinion or evaluation of someone’s actions. “I’m proud of you.” “Great job on this project.” These statements of praise need to be used sparingly because they are more likely to be internalized by the receiver as external forms of motivation (suboptimal).

Gratitude, on the other hand, is a pure and authentic expression of appreciation. “I appreciate you and the effort you put into this project. Thank you.” This expression of gratitude is always appropriate if it expresses an authentic connection to the individual (based on optimal motivation).

Praising is contingent, based on what someone has done. Gratitude is pure, based on the connection between you and the person for whom you are grateful.

Learning to accept gratitude unblocks positive energy

Gratitude in the workplace was the topic on Maria Pressentin’s podcast, "The Purposeful Leadership Talk Show," on Radio W.O.R.K.S World. As her guest, I made the point that managers need to be careful to distinguish between praising people and expressing gratitude because the former can be internalized as manipulative, insincere or unnecessary.

Pressentin’s second guest, Dr. Marina Nani, built on my comment by sharing that, as the recipient of both praising and gratitude, she’d never made that distinction. As a result, she had tended to discount or even reject people’s comments so she wouldn’t get emotionally spun into what she was hearing. But, she said she now realized that noticing the difference would enable her to acknowledge other people’s expression of gratitude. Then, she could experience the interconnection so essential to human thriving and would be more likely to transfer her gratitude to others. Wow.

When we learn to accept the generosity of gratitude from someone, we unblock positive energy we can share with others.

Gratitude is a choice

Gratitude is a healthy choice that is not only good for you, but for others, too. When you experience gratitude and express appreciation, you are taking the opportunity to relate with others, practice empathy, and demonstrate kindness to yourself and others. You are creating a ripple effect of positive energy that the world desperately needs now.


Susan Fowler is the co-author of the newly revised "Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager" with Ken Blanchard and Laurence Hawkins, and lead developer of The Ken Blanchard Companies’ Self Leadership product line. She is also the author of the bestseller "Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work… and What Does." Fowler is a senior consulting partner at The Ken Blanchard Cos. and a professor in the Master of Science in Executive Leadership Program at the University of San Diego.

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