Creating a Culture of Gratitude

Beliefs and Assumptions

Man focusing on a glowing rock.

It is well established that our thoughts are influenced by our underlying beliefs and assumptions. This is particularly evident when we volunteer our time to help others. When we do so, we bring our own unique set of beliefs and assumptions to the situation. These can sometimes conflict with the beliefs and assumptions of those we are trying to help. For example, a volunteer who believes that everyone is capable of change may be disappointed when they encounter someone who seems unwilling to change their behavior. On the other hand, a volunteer who assumes that everyone is trying their best may be more forgiving and understanding. The bottom line is that our thoughts are always influenced by our underlying belief system. When we are aware of this, we can be more mindful of how our beliefs might be impacting the way we think about and interact with those we are trying to help.

Beliefs and assumptions form the basis of our attitudes and have a significant impact on our emotions and habitual ways of thinking (Manz 1992). Our beliefs influence how we interpret events and can lead us to view the world in a certain way. For example, if we believe that people are inherently bad, we may be more likely to see their actions as negative and hostile. This can lead to negative emotions such as anger and suspicion, and can also cause us to act in a defensive or aggressive way. Alternatively, if we believe that people are basically good, we may be more likely to see their actions in a positive light and to react with empathy and understanding. Our beliefs can also affect our thinking in more subtle ways. For example, if we believe that things are always going to work out for the best, we may be more likely to take risks and pursue opportunities. Conversely, if we believe that things tend to go wrong, we may be more cautious and less likely to seize opportunities. Ultimately, our beliefs and assumptions play a powerful role in shaping our attitude towards life and can have a significant impact on our emotions and behavior.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of many nonprofit makerspaces, working tirelessly to support the Maker Movement. However, these same volunteers can also be a source of problems for an organization. Dysfunctional thinking is one of the biggest challenges that volunteers face (Burns 1980; Ellis 1977). This refers to a pattern of thought that is counterproductive and harmful to the Maker Movement. Volunteer coordinators need to be aware of this type of thinking in order to challenge it effectively. Common features of dysfunctional thinking include black-and-white thinking, perfectionism, over-generalization, and catastrophizing. For example, a volunteer who is fixated on perfectionism may become discouraged if they make a small mistake. This can lead to them feeling demotivated and less likely to continue volunteering. By being aware of these thought patterns, coordinators can help volunteers to reframe their thinking in a more positive and productive way.

Godwin et al. (1999, p. 157), while discussing thought self-leadership and goal setting, summarized this perspective:

“These distorted thoughts are based on common dysfunctional beliefs and assumptions that are generally activated by potentially troubling situations.

Thus, [volunteers] can improve their goal performance by following the prescriptions of Ellis (1977) and Burns (1980).

According to these authors, individuals can identify and confront their dysfunctional beliefs, replacing them with more rational beliefs.”

More rational thoughts increase the chances of improved emotional states (Ellis 1962, 1975, 1977). Volunteers are human beings, and as such, they are subject to the vagaries of emotion. These emotions can sometimes interfere with their work, and it is therefore important for organizations to find ways to help volunteers manage their emotions. One way to do this is to encourage volunteers to think more rationally. Rational thinking can help individuals to see situations more clearly and make better decisions. It can also help to reduce stress and anxiety levels. As a result, encouraging rational thinking in volunteers can lead to improved emotional states and a better overall experience for both the volunteer and the organization.

Ellis (1975, p. 52) wrote, “one may control one’s emotions by changing the internalized sentences, or self-dialog, with which one largely created these emotions in the first place.”

A wealth of other psychological research confirms that our emotions are largely created by the self-dialog we tell ourselves about the situations in which we find ourselves (see groundbreaking work by Ellis and Dryden (2007) on rational emotive behavior therapy). In other words, it's not necessarily the situation itself that determines how we feel, but the way we think about the situation. This has interesting implications for volunteers, who often find themselves in emotionally charged situations. By changing the self-dialog with which they view their experiences, volunteers may be able to better control their emotions and think more rationally. Of course, this is easier said than done; our self-dialog is often deeply ingrained and difficult to change. However, with awareness and effort, it is certainly possible to learn to frame experiences in a more positive or productive way. In doing so, volunteers can become more effective at managing their emotions and making rational decisions.


This page is an edited adaptation 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.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay