Is Gratitude the Most Underrated Engagement Tool?

February 28, 2019 Sarah Mulcahy

Give Thanks

Gratitude is more than saying “thank you” and it does more than just make you happy. It has the power to “heal, to energize, and to change lives,” according to Dr. Robert A. Emmons, professor of psychology at University of California, Davis. Did you know grateful people also eat healthier, exercise more, and get better sleep? Now imagine the impact a culture of gratitude could have across an organization.

At Workhuman 2019, Robert will share more about what he’s learned in 20 years of research on the “ultimate performance-enhancing substance” and how HR leaders and, in particular, the field of healthcare, could leverage gratitude to reduce burnout.

I recently caught up with Robert to chat about his latest research on the science behind gratitude, humility, and joy. Read my interview below or listen to the audio in the latest episode of Workhuman Radio.



Workhuman: It's been four years since you spoke at the first Workhuman. What have you been working on since then?

Robert: Four years goes by pretty fast, but 20 years also went by fast. Twenty years ago I first started my research on gratitude. So while your company's turned 20 years old, my research program has also turned 20 years old.

On the one hand that sounds pretty impressive, that I stuck with something for 20 years. On the other hand, after 20 years, we should have learned a lot more. We should have all the answers to the mysteries of the human mind when it comes to gratitude. We've made some progress, but there's still a lot of work to be done. So that's exciting. There are more and more studies trying to discern what are the best ways to grow gratitude and then examining its impact in different domains of life, whether physical health, mental health, relational functioning, or organizational functioning.


Workhuman: The length of time we've been studying gratitude speaks to the complexity of something that seems so simple.

Robert: Gratitude really is complex, and I’ve come to appreciate that. We used to think it was so simple. And I think maybe that's why the concept was ignored for so long and people reduced it to mere politeness or civility. We certainly could use more of that. But it’s more than just saying, ‘Thank you.’ My slogan is, ‘Gratitude works.’ And that sums up what I've learned in 20 years, that gratitude brings benefits in all spheres of life – relational, physical, psychological. Gratitude has the power to heal, to energize, and to change lives.

"Gratitude has the power to heal, to energize, and to change lives."

Workhuman: What are the basic tenets of positive psychology and why it is important to changing work culture?

Robert: Positive psychology also began about 20 years ago, quite independently of our research on gratitude. There was a realization from both scientists and practitioners that for too long psychology had just focused on what was going wrong in people's lives – depression and dysfunction and despair and disease and disappointment. A lot of progress had been made in understanding those and certainly in treating mental disorders like depression.

Just eliminating distress wasn't helping people to live better lives, lives of well-being, lives of happiness, lives of flourishing, lives of joy. And if we could figure out how to move people on a scale of zero to positive 10, that's another very important goal – not just moving them from minus 10 to a zero on an index of emotional functioning.

So that's really what 20 years have been trying to do, trying to identify all the ways in which people's lives can be made better through uncovering concepts like gratitude, forgiveness, joy, hope, and all the things which make life worth living.


Workhuman: What has been one of the most surprising benefits of gratitude you've uncovered?

Robert: Gratitude is good medicine. It's really amazing that the medical community has taken this seriously.

"Gratitude is good medicine."

The fact that gratitude makes you feel better psychologically is not that surprising. For centuries people have been saying that gratitude is the royal road to happiness. It's the secret to life, the key that opens all doors. But that was always meant in a relational and mental health sense. But science is now discovering that gratitude works under the skin physiologically. People recover more quickly from illness when they practice gratitude. Gratitude can lower blood pressure and improve immune system functioning.

There are at least eight studies showing that gratitude can improve the quality and quantity of sleep. Some of the more recent research is looking at hard measures – biomarkers of inflammation for heart disease, stress hormones, even something as complex as telomeres on your chromosomes, which are a good measure of aging.

If gratitude can short-circuit stress, it has such a wide range of possibilities and ways it can improve health. There are also subjective behaviors. When people are grateful, they take better care of their health. They exercise more. They're more likely to eat a healthy diet, less likely to smoke and abuse alcohol. When you add it all up, gratitude is good medicine.


Workhuman: Can you tell us more about what you’ve learned about the role of gratitude in healthcare settings in particular?

Robert: Gratitude is central for patient wellness, but also for physician wellness. Physicians as a group are at very high risk for distress, depression, burnout. More than half of physicians say if they had to do it again, they would enter a different line of work. With the impersonal nature of care right now, doctors and other healthcare providers often spend more time looking at a computer than they do looking into the eyes of their patients.

There’s a movement in the medical field focused on recovering joy in the practice of medicine. It’s why many doctors went into the field in the first place, to have that experience and relationship with a patient. How do we recover that? Without a reduction in stress and burnout, there isn’t room for joy and gratitude.


Workhuman: We’ve heard about the benefits of keeping a gratitude journal, but is it possible to oversimplify gratitude?

Robert: If you see it as just a tactic or strategy for becoming happier, I don't think it'll work. You can have gratitude, accountability partners, and share what you're grateful for. You can post your gratitude through social media. You can do all these things. They're all fine. But if that's all we do, it will be ineffective.

A lot of time the focus is just on ourselves and that can actually undermine our performance. It's like trying to be happy. You have to go at it indirectly, and I think the same thing with gratitude. We focus on how we're doing with respect to gratitude, not on how we are the receiver of gifts, of benefits, of goodness.

When you are so absorbed with your own emotional state, it's very hard to be absorbed by the good other people are doing for you. That’s the key to gratitude – take the focus off the self. For a lot of us, including me, that doesn't come easily or naturally. It has to be worked at.

"That's the key to gratitude – take the focus off the self."

Workhuman: It’s all about the inner work.

Robert: Humility is another overlooked concept in psychology. Being open to accepting help from others, admitting you don’t have all the answers, understanding your limitations, it's very freeing actually. Not only does that make us more open to receiving help from others, it actually can make us more grateful because people are providing us with things we can't provide for ourselves. That's where gratitude begins.


Workhuman: It's a virtuous cycle of positivity.

Robert: That's right. Joy is a topic I'm also looking at right now – another neglected topic in psychology. Even though there's a happiness industry, happiness is not the same thing as joy. We're trying to figure out what joy is and how you can measure joy and how you can connect it to things like gratitude, relationships, organizational functioning, and physical health. Using gratitude as the center on a wheel, there are all these spokes coming out. One would be humility, one would be joy, and there might be others we haven't identified yet.

(Robert will lead a breakout session called “Why Gratitude Works in the Workplace: Lessons Learned from the Science of Gratitude” at Workhuman 2019, in Nashville, March 18-21.)

About the Author

Sarah Mulcahy

Sarah is senior content marketing manager at Workhuman. When not writing and reading about all things culture, leadership, recognition, and appreciation, she enjoys iced coffee, running, and spending time with her daughters, Mabel and Eva.

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