8th October 2020

Gratitude and appreciation for positive mental health and wellbeing

24th July, 2018

Jonathan Gawthrop

Professor Martin Seligman, the vociferous advocate of positive psychology, proposes that gratitude is an amplification of appreciation with the ability to change negative thoughts to positive ones.

Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, another esteemed positive psychology champion argues that gratitude plays an important role in positivity intervention (Fredrickson, 2012). She went so far as to list gratitude as one of her ten essential representative emotions alongside significant others including; love, pride and inspiration.

Within the modern workplace environment, the positive psychology effect of gratitude has been shown to support employees’ coping ability and resilience responses to stress or difficult encounters (Neal, Watkins & Kotts, 2005), but this can’t be achieved effectively in isolation.

Making gratitude a habit: the power of repetition and reinforcement

The Broaden and Build Theory which Dr. Fredrickson introduced, draws upon the concept of expansion and inclusion. This is perfectly portrayed in the film Pay it Forward in which a young boy creates a chain reaction of positive events. This social contagion and crowdfunding style approach to positivity is a perfect example of gratitude broadening, and the spread of good will and wellbeing, as a potential buffer to adverse mental health and wellbeing effects.

One off “thank you’s” are not in themselves enough and only a quick and short-term fix. A bit like a cinnamon swirl for breakfast, giving or receiving gratitude is hedonic in nature. That is to say, it is momentarily positive in effect.

In order to maintain positive intervention outcomes and really make a sustained difference, gratitude requires repetition, reinforcement and conscious appreciation. McCullough, Tsang, & Emmons (2004) found in studies relating to mood effect (they used gratitude diaries in their research), that repeated gratitude resulted in improved experience and experience intensity, proposing that a cycle of gratitude could be created to establish a self-fulfilling prophecy. In addition, Maslow (1970) argued that consciously counting one’s blessings, contrary to taking things for granted, enables the creation of an intrinsic barrier to suffering.

In short, making gratitude a habit could help employees’ mental state become more positive, providing gratitude is consciously considered.

The link between gratitude and positive workplace cultures

In order to make the most of gratitude, we all need to learn to close the loop and to graciously and actively accept gratitude from others. To maximise its positive effect we must welcome gratitude in with open arms! In recent studies, appreciation has been proposed as a positive workplace intervention. Appreciation has been specifically linked to positive organisational interventions, with 35% of American companies in 2015 choosing to replace traditional hierarchical appraisal systems with peer group and network appreciation programs (Spiro, Maias & Monroy-Hernandez, 2016).

In their review of one particular application, Spiro et al. reported that the Gratia appraisal systemis being used to facilitate the creation of a positive culture through appreciation, encouragement, reciprocity and, yes, gratitude.

93% of appreciation messages related to a specific task or situation and this provided the recipients the chance to fully understand what they had done so well and to enjoy the feedback. Of these responses, 76% of those saying their “thank you’s” and actively acknowledging their co-workers, hoped that they were demonstrating to the recipient how much they were valued.

How positive, and arguably the very essence of appreciation! Just as telling was that a third of these employees considered their messaging to be reciprocal and actively wanted to be part of the gratitude/response/appreciation loop.  

Given the empirically researched benefits, the no frills, no cost ease of the intervention and given that we all appear to want to both give and receive, learning to show gratitude and be appreciative would seem like a positive message to share.

Jonathan Gawthrop

Jonathan is an operational Director for leading FM Company EMCOR UK heading up a range of national UK customer portfolios. He acts in a senior advisory capacity to the Executive Board across the EMCOR UK Leadership Teams for Health & Safety and Wellbeing and is the chair of the organisations national Health & Safety Forum. Jonathan has an MSc in Behaviour Change for Health and Wellbeing where he has gained the knowledge and transferable skills required to critically evaluate and design interventions providing opportunities for people to change in a variety of practical workplace contexts. He is due to commence a PhD at the end of the year.

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