My mom told a story about a friend of hers whose young son was notorious for his perpetual bad mood. One day they were over for lunch and the boy turned up his nose at everything on the table. His mother was embarrassed but Mom, ever the gracious hostess, asked him what he would like. “I want a peanut butter sandwich,” he demanded. Over his mother’s protests that she not go to any trouble, Mom took out a fresh slice of bread and swirled a generous layer of peanut butter over it, placed it on a plate and held it out to him.
“What do you say?” his mother prompted him.
The boy glared at the plate and then answered, “Put a top on it!”
All parents do their best to instill a sense of gratitude in their kids but at some point we no longer have mom leaning over us prodding, “What do you say?” As we grow older we sometimes lose the habit of expressing thanks and the result isn’t just a loss of civility and social grace; it’ a blow to our health, our joy, our relationships and our success.
According to recent research, experiencing and expressing gratitude is quite literally good for us. An American study on the effect of gratitude on young people (Emmons and McCullough, 2003) required one group of students to keep daily journals of what they were grateful for and another to record either things that annoyed them or ways that they were better off than others. Those who journaled their gratitude showed significantly higher levels of determination, enthusiasm and energy compared to the other groups. Even those who identified ways they were better off didn’t fare as well because gratitude is more than a comparison, it requires an expression of thanks.
The same researchers conducted a separate study on adults who were asked to keep a weekly gratitude journal and found that those who did experienced more optimism, reported more consistent exercise patterns and even suffered fewer physical ailments than those who didn’t write down the things for which they were grateful.
Gratitude can also transform relationships and environments at home and at work. According to research conducted by marriage expert, John Gottman, there is a “magic ratio” that’s a reliable indicator of a successful marriage. That ratio is 5:1 and it refers to the number of positive to negative comments that pass between spouses. Successful work teams need a 3:1 ratio. Does that mean that every positive comment has to be an expression of gratitude? No, but it’s a great way to find positive things to say and, according to Gallup, there is a serious gratitude deficit in the workplace. A survey in 2004 revealed that 65% of American workers reported that they hadn’t received a single ‘thank-you’ at work in the past 12 months. Ouch.
When you consider the levels and costs of workplace disengagement (estimates run between $250 billion and $1trillion depending on whether you include workplace injury, turnover and legal costs), finding ways to say “thanks” and making it part of a deliberate 3:1 positive to negative ratio seems a worthwhile exercise. Plus, it’s a great way of focusing on strengths which, according to researcher and Strengths-Based Leadership author, Tom Rath, is a manager’s most effective tool for virtually eliminating disengagement from the workplace.
So let’s review. Expressing gratitude is something everyone can do. Keeping even a once a week a journal of what you’re grateful for can increase your energy, your attention, your enthusiasm, improve your dedication to good habits like exercise and make you healthier and less susceptible to aches and pains. In your home and at work, it can be part of a magic ratio that will strengthen your marriage and improve workplace engagement.
Not a bad return on a simple willingness to express some sincere appreciation, wouldn’t you agree? But, it’s totally up to you, so—as your mother might have said—“What do you say?”