Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The case for cultivating gratitude at work

By Jeremy Adam Smith

The Greater Good Science Center's Thnx4.org project is designed to encourage thankfulness while gathering scientific data on gratitude.

Why should anyone thank you for just doing your job? And why should you ever thank your coworkers for doing what they’re paid to do?

These are common questions in American workplaces, often posed rhetorically—and sometimes with hostility.

Elsewhere in American life, we say "thank you" to acknowledge the good things we get from other people, especially when they give out of the goodness of their hearts. We say “thanks” at home and in school, in stores and at church.

But not at work. According to a survey of 2,000 Americans released earlier this year by the John Templeton Foundation, people are less likely to feel or express gratitude at work than anyplace else. And they’re not thankful for their current jobs, ranking them dead last in a list of things they’re grateful for.

It’s not that people don't crave gratitude at work, both giving and receiving. Ninety-three percent agreed that grateful bosses are more likely to succeed, and only 18 percent thought that gratitude made bosses “weak.” Most reported that hearing “thank you” at work made them feel good and motivated.

But here comes the messed-up, mysterious, and interesting part: Almost all respondents reported that saying “thank you” to colleagues “makes me feel happier and more fulfilled”—but on a given day, only 10 percent acted on that impulse. A stunning 60 percent said they “either never express gratitude at work or do so perhaps once a year.”

In short, Americans actively suppress gratitude on the job, even to the point of robbing themselves of happiness.

The GGSC's coverage of gratitude is sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation as part of our Expanding Gratitude project.

Why? It may be because in theory, no one gives away anything at work; every exchange is fundamentally economic. You don't deliver that memo to your boss at three o’clock sharp out of the goodness of your heart, but because that is what you're being paid to do. Your “thanks” is a paycheck. Fail to do what you’re “asked,” and you may not see another one.

Tellingly, only those who earned $150,000 or more were likely to express any gratitude for their jobs, according to the Templeton survey. This hints at one of the factors that undermines gratitude at work: power and pay imbalances. In a study published in January of last year, M. Ena Inesi and colleagues found that people with power tended to believe others thanked them mainly to kiss their butts, not out of authentic feeling—and as a result of this cynicism, supervisors are themselves less likely to express gratitude.

Indeed, the Templeton survey found that 35 percent of respondents believed that expressing any gratitude could lead coworkers to take advantage of them. When we acknowledge our interdependency, we make ourselves vulnerable. (And in fact, gratitude is not always the best response — see Amie Gordon's essay "Five Ways Giving Thanks Can Backfire.")

The result is a vicious, culturally ingrained circle of ingratitude, which can have a terrible effect on workplace morale and cohesion. Why should this be the case? Because the need for a paycheck is only one of the motivations we bring to work. We don’t just work for money. We also work for respect, for a sense of accomplishment, for a feeling of purpose. We invest our selves and our emotions into our jobs, and work affects our emotional states.

Gratitude is a non-monetary way to support those non-monetary motivations. “Thank you” doesn’t cost a dime, and it has measurably beneficial effects. In a series of four experiments, psychologists Adam Grant and Francesca Gino found that "thank you" from a supervisor gave people a strong sense of both self-worth and self-efficacy. The Grant and Gino study also reveals that the expression of gratitude has a spillover effect: Individuals become more trusting with each other, and more likely to help each other out.

The benefits of gratitude go beyond a sense of self-worth, self-efficacy, and trust between employees. When UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center Science Director Emiliana Simon-Thomas analyzed data from our interactive gratitude journal Thnx4.org, she found the greater the number of gratitude experiences people had on a given day, the better they felt. People who kept at it for at least two weeks showed significantly increased happiness, greater satisfaction with life, and higher resilience to stress; this group even reported fewer headaches and illnesses.

Building a culture of gratitude at work is not easy, but the science says it’s worth it. So here are five research-tested tips for fostering gratitude on the job, which mentions some initiatives being pioneered at UC Berkeley.