Creating a Culture of Gratitude
Gratitude has been a topic of discussion for many centuries. It is found in major world religions (Emmons and McCullough 2004; Emmons and Stern 2013; McCullough et al. 2001).
The biblical Book of Genesis describes Adam and Eve as being "thankful" to God for their creation. In Buddhism, gratitude is one of the "four sublime states" and is considered an essential part of the Eightfold Path. In Hinduism, thankfulness is an important part of the Bhagavad Gita, and in Islam, the Quran mentions gratitude numerous times. Given its ubiquity, it's no surprise that gratitude has been the subject of extensive academic research.
In recent years, studies have shown that gratitude can have a positive impact on mental and physical health, relationship satisfaction, and overall well-being. Despite its many benefits, however, gratitude is often overlooked or taken for granted.
Many books have been written on the subject for wider audiences that extoll the benefits of gratitude from reflective and often speculative perspectives (Emmons and McCullough 2003).
Authors extoll the benefits of gratitude from reflective and often speculative perspectives. The term ‘gratitude’ is derived from the Latin word gratus, meaning ‘pleasing’ or ‘thankful.’ Robert A. Emmons, a leading gratitude researcher, defines it as “a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, or appreciation for life.” Gratitude has been shown to have numerous psychological and physical benefits, including improved well-being, increased happiness, reduced anxiety and stress, and better sleep. Grateful people are also more likely to have a positive outlook on life, be more forgiving, exercise more regularly, and make healthier food choices. Given the many benefits of gratitude, it is perhaps not surprising that it has been called “the ultimate mood booster.”
Even a brief online scan of books on the topic of gratitude results in options from a sundry of perspectives designed for virtually all age groups. For example, the concept of gratitude appears in children’s literature as A.A. Milne (1926) wrote in the book, Winnie the Pooh: “Piglet noticed that even though he had a very small heart, it could hold a rather large amount of gratitude” (https://scholastic.com, accessed on 13 January 2021).
The concept of gratitude has been classified in a variety of ways, such as a virtue, an attitude, a characteristic, a mood, and an emotion (Alspach 2009; Emmons and McCullough 2003; Emmons and Stern 2013; McCullough and Tsang 2004).
Gratitude has been the subject of intense scrutiny by a variety of disciplines over the past several years with gratefulness receiving accolades as a panacea for physical, psychological, and social ills. At its simplest, gratitude may be defined as a conscious acknowledgment of an act of kindness received from another. Theorists and researchers have categorized gratitude in a variety of ways including a virtue, an attitude, trait, mood, and emotion. In ancient Greek culture, gratitude was understood to be one of the four cardinal virtues along with wisdom, justice, and courage. Similarly, Confucius identified gratitude as the “mother of all virtues”. In contrast to this universal understanding of gratitude as a virtue, some theorists have conceptualized gratefulness as an emotion. Numerous studies have demonstrated that people who are experiencing gratitude also tend to display other positive emotions such as happiness, love, hope, and pride. As an emotion, gratitude has also been found to be associated with increased physical health and well-being. A number of studies have shown that grateful individuals report feeling fewer aches and pains and they also sleep better and have stronger immune systems. Grateful people also visit their doctors less frequently than their less grateful counterparts.
Researchers from diverse disciplines (Emmons and McCullough 2004) have utilized the construct of gratitude. It is not unexpected then that different understandings have been used (McCullough et al. 2001). Robert Emmons wrote in his introduction to The Psychology of Gratitude (Emmons and McCullough 2004, p. 4). It is not unexpected then that different understandings have been used (McCullough et al. 2001). For example, in some studies gratitude has been conceptualized as a general attitude or personality trait (e.g., Froh et al. 2008), whereas in others it has been operationalized as a discrete emotion triggered by the recognition of a benefit received (e.g., Tsang 2006). Given this range of definitions, it is perhaps not surprising that investigators have arrived at different conclusions about the associations between gratitude and well-being. Indeed, some studies have found that grateful individuals are more likely to report higher levels of well-being (e.g., Emmons and Shelton 2002; Watkins et al. 2003), whereas others have failed to find such a relationship (e.g., Wood et al. 2010). Given the lack of consensus on this issue, it is clear that there is still much work to be done in order to fully understand the role that gratitude may or may not play in promoting human flourishing.
“What exactly is gratitude? The Oxford English Dictionary (1989) defined gratitude as ‘the quality or condition of being thankful; the appreciation of an inclination to return kindness’ (p. 1135). The word gratitude is derived from the Latin gratus, meaning pleasing. All derivatives from this Latin root ‘have to do with kindness, generousness, gifts, the beauty of giving and receiving, or getting something for nothing’ (Pruyser 1976, p. 69).”
For our purposes, we will approach gratitude as both an emotion associated with events, and with more stable thought patterns from a thought self-leadership perspective.
Therefore, from a psychological perspective, and as an emotion, gratitude corresponds to a real or perceived beneficence. In other words, gratitude is the perception of kindness or favor, and the corresponding emotion of thankfulness.
The object of gratitude need not be people; it could be inanimate objects, animals, places, aspects of nature, or even intangible concepts such as knowledge or justice. From a self-leadership perspective, gratitude can also be viewed as a thought pattern—a construal—that leads to beneficial outcomes. An individual who habitually thinks grateful thoughts will likely benefit in terms of physical and mental health, social relationships, and overall life satisfaction.
In recent years, gratitude has gained limited attention in the field of management (Fehr et al. 2017). The concept of gratitude has been mostly studied in the context of psychology and psychopathology (Emmons and McCullough 2003), with a growing body of work showing that gratitude is associated with better mental health outcomes, including decreased depression and anxiety, and increased life satisfaction and happiness (Seligman 2002; Lyubomirsky et al. 2005; Sheldon and Lyubomirsky 2006). However, there is less research on the role of gratitude in organizational settings. Fehr et al. (2017) define organizational gratitude as "the feeling of appreciation that an individual experiences when perceiving that he or she has received benevolence from another person or entity in the organization". The authors suggest that gratitude may have beneficial effects on individuals' well-being and behaviors at work. For example, grateful employees may be more likely to experience positive affective states such as joy and enthusiasm, which can, in turn, lead to increased job satisfaction and commitment, as well as improved work performance. Additionally, grateful employees may also be more likely to show prosocial behavior towards others in the organization, such as helping behaviors and cooperative behaviors.
There is significant empirical evidence regarding gratitude’s positive benefits. These include promoting social bonds (Caputo 2015) and building relationships (Bartlett et al. 2012).
Individuals that manifest gratitude are generally happier (Caputo 2015; McCullough et al. 2004; Emmons and Stern 2013), healthier (Alspach 2009; Emmons and Stern 2013), more optimistic (McCullough et al. 2002; Emmons and McCullough 2003), and prone to more positive emotions (McCullough et al. 2004; Emmons and Stern 2013). McCullough et al. (2001, p. 261) in examining gratitude as “moral affect:”
“ . . . we hypothesized that gratitude functions as a moral reinforcer, motivating benefactors to persist in behaving prosocially. We found substantial support for the moral reinforcer hypothesis. People who have been the recipients of sincere expressions of gratitude are more likely to act again in a prosocial fashion toward their beneficiaries. They are also more likely to behave prosocially toward third parties after having received sincere thanks from someone on who they have already conferred a benefit.” (See (McCullough et al. 2001) for the complete explanation and conclusions).
In summary, gratitude research is robust in its advantageous results.
While there is substantial empirical evidence for the positive benefits of gratitude, it is important to note that not all forms of gratitude are necessarily positive.
Wood et al. (2016) discussed the perspective of gratitude as a virtue.
Wood et al. (2016, p. 142) wrote: “The socially excellent characteristics exits only at the “golden mean,” where its use is situationally appropriate and displayed in the right degree.”
An example of “harmful” gratitude in an inappropriate situation is “gratitude within abusive relationships” (Wood et al. 2016, p. 142).
It is beyond the scope and direction of this article to discuss all aspects of inappropriate situations and degrees of gratitude (see (Wood et al. 2016) for a more complete treatment of this topic.)
It is important for our discussion of thought self-leadership that gratitude be placed in the correct context of “beneficial” gratitude.
As evidenced by the many positive benefits of the practice of gratitude in people’s everyday lives, further investigation is worthwhile for its implications for management in organizational contexts.
Addressing gratitude from a management perspective, Fehr et al. (2017, p. 361) wrote: “ . . . in only a handful of studies have scholars examined [gratitude’s] role in organizations (Grant and Wrzesniewski 2010; Kaplan et al. 2014; Waters 2012).”
Consequently, given the positive benefits of gratitude, it is the purpose of this article to contribute to reducing this gap in the literature.
We propose that self-leadership, specifically thought self-leadership (e.g., Manz and Neck 1991; Neck et al. 2013; Neck and Manz 1992, 1996a; Neck et al. 1999; Neck et al. 2003; Neck et al. 1997; Neck et al. 1995), can be an important mechanism to enhance the development of gratitude within organizations.
We argue that the level of gratitude experienced by individuals can be increased through the utilization of thought self-leadership.
We propose a model that looks specifically at how thought self-leadership can increase the amount of gratitude experienced from events or (volunteer's emotional states), their thinking in more gratitude-provoking ways (volunteer thought patterns), and performance.
Attribution & License
This page is an edited adaptation and expansion of an excerpt from the paper Utilizing Self-Leadership to Enhance Gratitude Thought Patterns. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
Godwin, Jeffrey L., and Susan M. Hershelman. 2021. Utilizing Self-Leadership to Enhance Gratitude Thought Patterns. Administrative Sciences 11: 40. https://doi.org/10.3390/admsci11020040
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