Better Leadership Starts With Gratitude

We often tend to think of gratitude as a mysterious force that shows up when we succeed. But by mindfully seeking it out, we become better leaders in business and happier people overall.
Headshot of author Jacqueline Jensen
Jacqueline Jensen
Expert Contributor
November 23, 2020
Updated: July 13, 2021
Headshot of author Jacqueline Jensen
Jacqueline Jensen
Expert Contributor
November 23, 2020
Updated: July 13, 2021

Gratitude has the potential to reshape the world around us, but as business leaders, it can be easy to forget its power or dismiss it entirely. We think we’ll automatically feel gratitude when we’ve made it, when that next round of funding comes in or when we make that next big hire to finally relieve an overworked team. The default assumption many people have is that gratitude isn’t something we can reach for regularly, but instead something we feel when all is right with the world.

Turns out, gratitude does not appear right at the moment things are unfolding perfectly. It’s not magically bestowed on some of us and not on others just based on whether were successful or not. The best way to think about gratitude is not a thing that’s dependent on what’s happening around us, but rather something we need to cultivate each day as a practice.

Many of us can agree that gratitude is an essential building block in our human experience. It’s so foundational that we might be tempted to think it’s too basic to study. We may also think that expressing gratitude is obvious or straightforward, but many of us do not know the profound psychological effect growing a gratitude practice can have on us.

Researchers working in the field of positive psychology have found that feeling gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Most successful business people, leaders and the majority of happy people I know practice gratitude on a regular basis. Despite this, for years, I had a hard time fully grasping its power.

Although gratitude plays a central role in my life now, such has not always been the case. I have come to see that practicing daily gratitude with the deliberate intention we pay to other tasks — like showing up on time to a meeting or driving with awareness so we don’t get in an accident — is a game-changer. Gratitude is something I choose to think about now because I know that practicing it gives me both personal and professional advantages. When I have every excuse to focus on what’s not going right, having a gratitude practice allows me to see things from a new perspective. Not everyone is able to redirect their thinking like that!

Before discussing how business leaders can build a gratitude practice, we should look at why gratitude is such a dominant force in the first place. As I’ve learned more about gratitude, four powerful things have stood out to me: 

  1. It is normal to feel weakness while experiencing gratitude.
     
  2. Gratitude is good for our overall health.
     
  3. Gratitude acts as an antidote to fear.
     
  4. The impacts of gratitude linger long after we initially feel grateful.

 

It Is Normal to Feel Weakness While Experiencing Gratitude

Why do we sometimes want to match another person’s kindness when we are grateful, while other times returning the favor feels like an obligation? When we decide to take action after feeling gratitude, are we trying to express appreciation or just to take the weight of a debt off our shoulders?

“We don’t often think about gratitude as an emotion that’s obviously linked to self-criticism, self-acceptance and self-compassion,” said Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University. “This research shows that gratitude is a fundamentally interdependent mindset.”

There is a true interdependence we uncover while experiencing gratitude. When I stop to think about something someone has done to help me in my business or career, the limiting worldview that valorizes rugged independence and “do it yourself”-itude above all else dissolves. The truth is that we rely deeply on each other and live in an interconnected world. No one is truly disconnected and going it alone.

What’s perhaps even more profound is that when I can acknowledge I rely on others and they come through, this deepens my sense of self. It demonstrates that I am worthy of the compassion of others and that it’s OK to be vulnerable. Having gratitude for others helps me to have compassion for myself, not just for others.

 

Gratitude Is Good for Our Health

Gratitude also has a significant impact on our overall health. Like the muscles in our bodies, we can build it up over time through training and practice.

Researchers at the University of Rome studied 410 people and found that gratitude acts as a protective factor — almost like a robust and invisible shield — against mental-health problems like depression and anxiety. One reason was that those who practiced gratitude had improved relationships with others. Perhaps even more powerful, though, was that the researchers found practicing gratitude connects us with a less critical, less punishing and more compassionate relationship with ourselves.

In other words, those who can tap into gratitude have increased compassion for themselves and a concurrent decrease in self-criticism. Researchers observed those who practice gratitude have higher emotional resiliency and are less likely to experience depression and anxiety.

 

Gratitude Acts as an Antidote to Fear

Without fail, gratitude teleports us out of a place of fear every time. The reason is simple: Human beings cannot be in states of both gratitude and fear simultaneously.

Don’t believe me? Try it.

Think about a business challenge you’re worried about. Really dig deep and feel the fear in a visceral way. Maybe it’s making payroll this month or landing a client who will be a game-changer for the company. Maybe you’re worried about an upcoming feature launch going well.

Now, name five things about this situation that you are grateful for. These things must have some relation to this challenge. Maybe your co-founder decided to join you on taking that temporary pay cut or you’re grateful for the clients you’ve already landed. Perhaps you can relive all the positivity the team brought to the table when building the new feature.

After the gratitude list ended, what happened to the fear?

Consider this: You simply cannot listen to the voices of gratitude and fear at the same time. Your attention can either be on fear or gratitude — it is your choice to pick which one has your ear.

The times I struggle with gratitude the most are usually when I do not see my place in the greater picture around me. I’m in the muddy waters of fear, disappointment and lack. I can’t see the opportunities and possibilities around me, so I have a tough time finding gratitude. On the other hand, when I focus on gratitude, I am more optimistic, cooperative and energized.

 

The Impacts of Gratitude Linger Long After We Initially Feel Grateful

Can expressing gratitude lead to longer-term effects on brain activity?

Indiana University researchers, led by Prathik Kini, studied how practicing gratitude may change our brains in the long run.

The study recruited subjects who were entering psychotherapy for depression and/or anxiety. One group participated in a writing intervention that required them to write letters expressing gratitude. The control group did not perform the intervention and just participated in traditional therapy.

Three months later, participants in the study performed a “Pay It Forward” task in an fMRI scanner. During the task, subjects were given money and then asked to donate any amount as an expression of their gratitude.

The researchers found that, on average, the more money a participant gave away and the stronger the feelings of gratitude they reported feeling, the more brain activity they saw. They also found that a simple gratitude writing practice was associated with significantly greater neural sensitivity to gratitude.

But the results didn’t stop after the experiment was over.

Participants who took part in three 20-minute gratitude letter writing exercises saw effects on their brain lasting beyond the exercises. After writing these letters of gratitude, researchers saw the participants had significant increases in neural sensitivity to gratitude weeks and even months later.

 This means that, the more practice you give your brain in feeling and expressing gratitude, the more it adapts to this mindset. You can cultivate this way of life through practice. As you put more effort into feeling gratitude in the present moment, the more the feeling will come to you without much effort in the future. Being aware of the things we are grateful for now impacts our ability to notice such things later!

 

The Path to a Gratitude Practice

My gratitude practice started with an idea many of us have probably heard: Start a gratitude journal. Taking that advice, I vowed to find three things each day that I was grateful for, which seemed easy enough to commit to. I opened my journal and waited to be overtaken by gratitude.

To my surprise, I found the daily exercise difficult for weeks.

Some things I was grateful for actually required a mental footnote about why I was not entirely satisfied with them. Other things appeared so small and insignificant I felt embarrassed to let them occupy what I considered to be the valuable real estate in my gratitude journal. I found myself naming the same items over and over.

Over time, I let go of the idea of gratitude as an item on my daily to-do list. For me, getting serious about gratitude became less about creating an inventory of the most amazing parts of my life and more about fostering a conscious awareness of the tiny tile shards that make up a colorful life mosaic. Deep gratitude is realizing that all of the things in my life have their place. Each piece alone doesn’t create much of anything at all. We need them all together, in union, to make our unique life mosaic.

Here are some jumping-off points that nudged me to think beyond what was immediately coming to mind and helped to spark inspiration while writing my daily gratitude list:

Nothing Is Insignificant
I stopped labeling anything on my list as insignificant, too basic or too vain. At first, I felt like my gratitude list should be epic every single day. I should list the biggest moments, relationships and milestones I could think of so that my gratitude journal could capture it all. Over time, I realized that nothing was insignificant. From the barista who always starts a friendly conversation to the laughter at the nearby playground, I realized that if these things were indeed part of a mosaic and every single moment had its place contributing to the larger picture unfolding, even the small joys were just as valuable as all the others.

Including Small, Everyday Physical Objects
Think about physical objects you rely on often but have disconnected from their importance over time. What is a physical object in your life that helps make your day easier? Think about how that object went from an idea in someone’s brain to in your hand here today, helping to fill a need in your life. For me, this looked like listing my favorite pair of jeans, the dishes in my kitchen or my umbrella on a rainy day.

Consider Past Relationships
Try entering a state of gratitude for what a past relationship carried into your life. Identify why you are better off for having known that person. Patiently seek the gratitude even in the toughest of relationships — it is there. On my best days, I have come to experience true gratitude for estranged friends, family members and difficult bosses by looking for the good in my gratitude practice.

Use All Your Senses
When I am making a gratitude list, I will sometimes look around the room I am in or close my eyes to picture what I am grateful for in my mind’s eye. I have started to experiment with going beyond my sense of sight to dive deeper. Am I grateful for particular smells? Is there something I heard in the past few days that made me smile? One of my favorite places to do this is in nature. I find myself grateful for the wind in my hair while on a boat or taking in the smell of leaves on a hiking trail in autumn.

Feel Gratitude for Yourself
Add to your gratitude list something you are grateful for about yourself. This might feel uncomfortable. For a lot of us, we are quick to focus on things about ourselves that we don’t like. I can get down on myself for my temper or times when I am unaware of how my actions and words affect others. Gratitude teaches us that we can alter this negative cycle. What might happen if we intentionally chose to take in the good? Instead of focusing on my character flaws, I could practice paying extra attention to the times where I am proud of who I am.

 

Gratitude Rewards People Who Support Us

Regularly taking time to privately acknowledge people on the teams who support me is a great way to bring a new energy to the next email I draft or at the next team meeting. While it’s important to show outward appreciation for what they bring, I find that privately acknowledging their efforts in my daily practice is just as important to get me into the right headspace on a regular basis.

Think about it: The idea of looking at things around you with a set of fresh eyes is incredibly empowering. What’s even better, it means that we don’t need a product launch to go perfectly or a profitable quarter to experience the good around us. We can “turn on” gratitude anytime, even in the darkest of times.

* * *

When we shift to see gratitude as a primary focus, moments within our companies — and outside business too — can really surprise us with all their wholeness, beauty and simplicity. By waiting around for the big wins, we are missing impactful things around us every day.

My journey to gratitude is a story I am living, not a story I am telling. There is not one single way to grow a gratitude practice. I experiment, learn more, and I am open to hearing what works for others. Those I meet who are practicing gratitude are genuinely practicing it in every sense of the word. There is no trophy to be won, no certificate to frame and certainly not one correct way to traverse the path.

If you are new to practicing gratitude, remind yourself often that it is OK to feel uncomfortable trying something for the first time. We are all trying to figure it out. Be willing to struggle a bit and then take note of how the crawl back each time gets easier and easier.

More from Jacqueline JensenDon’t Just Embrace Serendipity — Engineer It

Expert Contributors

Built In’s expert contributor network publishes thoughtful, solutions-oriented stories written by innovative tech professionals. It is the tech industry’s definitive destination for sharing compelling, first-person accounts of problem-solving on the road to innovation.

Learn More

Great Companies Need Great People. That's Where We Come In.

Recruit With Us