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On Being Grateful

| November 26, 2019

by Jim Bruce

Two days from today on the fourth Thursday of November, people in the United States will celebrate a national day of Thanksgiving. A similar holiday is celebrated on the same or other days by people in many nations.
In the United States, a day set apart for giving thanks has been observed, most years, since the first colonization of our country. Sixteenth century French and Spanish explorers and settlers in what is now known as the United States observed a time of thanksgiving. British settlers, in what became the Commonwealth of Virginia, began arriving in 1607. In 1619, the first representative assembly in America was convened “to establish one equal and uniform government over all Virginia” and would provide “just laws for the happy guiding and governing of the people there inhabiting.”1  After a ship’s arrival that year with more settlers, they gathered to pray and give thanks on December 4, 1619.2  Their thanksgiving celebration, noted by some as the first Thanksgiving in what we know as the United States, was likely a day of prayer and fasting, thanking God for His safe deliverance to the new land. Their fast was likely broken by a simple, common meal made from provisions from their ship.
Today’s Thanksgiving celebrations can also be traced back to a 1621 harvest feast at the Plimoth [1621 spelling of Plymouth] Plantation where the settlers had a successful growing season. Autumn or early winter feasts continued there sporadically in later years, first as an impromptu religious observance and later as a civil tradition.
These concepts of giving thanks and expressing gratitude seem to be timeless. It is seen as an important human instinct in the writings, teachings, and traditions of the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Baha’i and other faiths. In secular writing, we find Cicero writing in 54 BC in Pro Plancio that “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of all of the others.”
Let’s focus on that word gratitude.  In his guest Tuesday Reading, Gratitude, an Emotion to Be Expressed in All Seasons,3 in January 2019, Bill Hogue, retired University of South Carolina CIO and now Leadership Coach with the MOR Leadership Programs, quotes Robert Emmons, University of California, Davis psychologist and author on gratitude:  “Feeling gratitude starts with the realization of what we have received from others and what it has cost them.”4  
Note the emphasis on both what we receive and the cost to the giver. Too often our focus in all on what we receive. In his essay, Bill told the story of his grandmother, who dropped out of school and did piece work in a New Hampshire shoe factory. She sacrificially gave him a two-dollar bill every birthday. And, I think of my subsistence farmer grandfather in Shepherd, Texas, who rarely had any money but would save a penny or a nickel from time to time to give to one of his grandchildren. I think of parents who labor in their jobs to send their children to college. And, members of our staffs who often must sacrifice time with families to complete their assigned work on time. The point I wish to make is that gratitude must be, and really can only be, seen in terms of both the gift and the cost of that gift to the giver.
So, what does gratitude have to do with leadership and being a leader?  A lot. Research has demonstrated that if you take gratitude as one of your core reference points, your mindset will shift. A gratitude mindset can lessen panic, envy, anxiety, stress, and depression, and strengthen relationships, increase happiness and optimism, and reduce stress and negativity. And, you will be healthier. All of these qualities positively impact your life, your leadership, and your workplace.  
While there are many ways to develop your skill of showing gratitude, here are four that I think are particularly effective:
1.  Observe your life and world from a gratitude mindset.  You are likely to be amazed at the good things we have come to take for granted.  Sharon Melnick, business psychologist and author of Success Under Stress,5 suggests that too often we let mental stress deflect our appreciation of what we have. She mentions three stressors, in particular, that we need to combat – an excessive focus (1) on what we don’t have, (2) on not meeting expectations imposed by ourselves and (3) on the question whether we choose wisely. Melnick argues that we combat these stressors by having gratitude for what we do have, by reminding ourselves of the expectations we have met and acknowledging those wise choices we have made. 
2.  Actively look for opportunities to express gratitude. Researchers Francesca Gino, of the Harvard Business School, and Adam M. Grant, of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, studied6 the impact of saying “Thank you” in the workplace.  They found that there was a 50% increase in the amount of additional help offered as a result of showing this simple appreciation! Surely, each of us can do this. Unfortunately, another of their studies showed that 15% of us never say “Thank you” at work, and 35% of those surveyed had never heard their managers say thank you.
Bill Hogue, in his Tuesday Reading,3 noted that “Gratitude is a practice, and getting started is simple.  Make a commitment right now that you will express gratitude three times today. Put three quarters [or some other object, such as three small, smooth stones, that will remind you of your commitment] in your left front pocket.  Your objective is to empty your pocket by the end of the day.  Move a quarter to your right pocket each time you express your thanks to someone for something they’ve done while silently acknowledging what it cost them to do it.  Pretty easy.  And the dividends to you and others will far outweigh your investment.”
Other approaches to verbalize your appreciation work as well. In those “ancient days” when people wrote messages on paper and sent them by mail, one large paper company printed cards with a banner “You Made My Day” and a rainbow logo and encouraged their staff to acknowledge colleagues who had been helpful with a note. Some individuals posted their “You Made My Day” cards above their desks as reminders and encouragement to themselves for the good work they had done. Although archaic, a handwritten note of appreciation, personally delivered to a person’s desk, will still be much appreciated and long remembered. (I got such a note last week and it really made, not only my day but, my entire week.) And, if a handwritten note seems too archaic, you can settle for an email, or a tweet, or a post on Facebook. But, do step up and take the initiative.
3.  Show respect to those around you. Treat others with the same level of courtesy and respect that you expect to receive: smile, show kindness, exhibit patience, don’t interrupt, and listen. One health care organization introduced a “ten-five” rule: If you come within ten feet of another person, acknowledge their presence by making eye contact, nodding, smiling, … And, if you are within five feet, verbally acknowledge their presence with a word – “hello,” “good morning/afternoon,” “how are you,” … Doing this resulted in significant improvements in morale and personal interactions.
4.  Don’t complain. When you complain you reinforce a negative state of mind without offering a solution. Instead, take a few deep breaths and focus on the positive. Work to see if there is a positive side to the negative event you experienced.  
Each of us might profit by working on your ”showing gratitude” skill and practicing it more. It will be good for you, the work you do, and for all those around you. So, schedule time in the coming days and weeks to further develop and put into practice your gratitude mindset. You’ll find it to be a good thing to have in your skillset.
I hope you do enjoy your Thanksgiving celebration with your family and friends this week. No matter our circumstances, we do have much to be thankful for. And, note the wise counsel of William Arthur Ward, one of the most quoted writers in the United States: “Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.”  
.  .  .  .  jim
P.S.  After I had originally completed this essay, I was watching the CBS Friday Evening News. The last news item was about a man who served in the Vietnam war as a helicopter gunship door gunner. On Christmas Day 1970 he was given a letter written by a young schoolgirl. The line that stood out was “I want to give my sincere thanks for going to fight for us.” He carried that letter with him reading it every day. He said that the letter got him through the war and that he still reads it often.  The power of expressed gratitude even from someone you don’t know!
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Jamestown, Virginia, Wikipedia.
  2. The First Thanksgiving in America, Visit Williamsburg website, September 10, 2019. 
  3. Bill Hogue, “Gratitude, an Emotion to Be Expressed in All Seasons,” Tuesday Reading, January 2018.
  4. Clare Ansberry, “Beyond Thankful: Cultivating a Life of Gratitude,” Turning Points, Wall Street Journal, November 13, 2017.
  5. Sharon Melnick, Success Under Stress: Powerful Tools for Staying Calm, Confident, and Productive When the Pressure’s On, Amazon, 2013. 
  6. Francesca Gino and Adam Grant, The Big Benefits of a Little Thanks, HBR Podcast and Transcript, 2013.

Note: This essay draws on material contained in prior Tuesday Readings on the subject.