The practice of Gratitude
The practice of Gratitude
The Competence Cauldron

The Practice of Gratitude

Ravi Kumar Pillai

Ravi Kumar Pillai

Many years back I was nominated to attend an international training program in a prestigious academic institution in London. Those days in India everything from a passport to foreign exchange had to be arranged within the tight regime controls of the Government. These and many other requirements were rationed out and made to appear as great favour at the mercy of the bureaucrats at different echelons. The self-importance of petty Government officials was perceived as directly proportional to the queues and recommendations for sanctions and signatures. In hindsight, India then resembled the erstwhile East European scarcity-ridden ‘dole-out’ societies.

At the beginning of the 100-day program, we had an introductory session. The course coordinator, a well-built, graceful Irish gentleman in his forties told us while welcoming, “In this country, let me assure you, two simple expressions can help you to get along and get things done. They are Please and Thank You. My immediate thoughts were, “I wish someone had told me this in my younger days!”

Perhaps in the hustle and bustle of getting on with the routines of life, jostling and elbowing our way, breaking queues and a bit of shouting or screaming have all been accepted as ‘normal’ in the Indian way of life. As a society, we seem to take services we get from others as entitlements and hence thanking the service provider is deemed unwarranted. When is the last time you said, “Thank You” to a bank teller, postman or a counter sales person? Or, between spouses, do we exchange thanks once a while?

The public insensitivity to the social need for gratitude is glaring in the ongoing COVID scenario. The healthcare personnel from doctors and nurses to medical attendants and support staff are overstretched and work without proper rest, facilities or good quality protective gear in many cases. Yet, very few in the public express a word of thanks to these critical staff who are putting their personal safety at risk to serve us. Instances of abuses, heckling and even physical attacks on doctors and paramedical staff are reported from many parts of the country. Particularly, the Nurses who are like angels treading on earth are abused, harassed and turned away from residential localities by many ill-informed citizens. Cynicism seems more the norm than exception in social behaviour. Contrast this with nations like Japan and much of SouthEast Asia where politeness, social courtesies and thankfulness are appreciated and encouraged from early stages of life.

Gratitude is a prime topic of study and research globally even as the discipline of positive psychology has gained prominence. It is now increasingly appreciated that the prime purpose of life is pursuit of happiness; seeking harmony with people and nature opens up the path to sustainable joy. Over the past decade, researchers have identified great social, psychological, and physical health benefits in the simple act of thanksgiving.

Clarity still eludes scholars on whether gratitude is an emotion or a value. While empirical psychologists see gratitude from an emotional prism, it has an unmistakable spiritual dimension too. Philosophy treats gratitude more as an ethical value. Most religions treat empathy and gratitude as central to their core belief framework. From a psychological or ethical perspective, it is immensely important to feel, express and promote gratitude. Quite simply it makes us better human beings.

In an open and diverse society, it makes sense to recognize and practice thanksgiving as a secular social behaviour that transcends the prescriptive codes of ethics within narrower religiosity. Gratitude as a social behaviour is of immense value especially in times of crisis. Empirically, gratitude has been linked with positive emotions such as contentment, happiness, pride, and hope. The positivity from gratitude permeates the giver and the taker in substantial measure. It is the mutuality of the behavioural impact of thanksgiving that makes it a really powerful behavioural tool of wellness. A Gallup survey of American teens and adults in 1998 found that an overwhelmingly high share (90%) of respondents felt happier and positive when they expressed thanks for services by others.

Harvard Medical School reported a seminal research by two psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami on gratitude. They asked all participants to write a few sentences each week focusing on their social experiences. One group wrote about things they were grateful for during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them during the period. After ten weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Their health parameters like sleep quality, blood pressure, sugar level and heart beat during this period were found to be robust. Definitely, feeling grateful for one’s experiences and interactions contributed to positive feelings about self and others.

As employees, managers or customers, we seek, receive and provide a variety of services on a day-to-day basis. We also opine, recommend and comment upon these services. Those who feel and express gratitude for the services and support received would experience fulfilment and contentment. On the other hand, those who overly rue the unpleasant experiences are bound to be ill-at-ease with self and others.

Gratitude as a habit has to organically evolve as part of emotional maturing through childhood, schooling and socialisation. Like many other aspects of normative social behaviour, gratitude practice has to become second nature by adolescent phase.

The psychology of gratitude recognizes three distinct stages of thankfulness - recognizing the contribution of others in our wellbeing, making a mental or documented recording of the events triggering gratitude and expressing the feeling of thankfulness.

Here are three simple steps in gratitude practice that can initiate individuals to build a thanksgiving culture. These steps are as much relevant and applicable to family or community situations as to the organizational context.

Gratitude Journal : As the name suggests it is simply a log of the incidents and contributions that you feel grateful for. It is a daily recording of events which you consider significant and have contributed to a sense of fulfilment. The journal can be an unstructured note; but it is desirable to follow a structure by including details like the persons to whom you feel grateful, your expectations from the event and how significantly it impacted you. If you can record the events in story-telling mode describing the behaviours involved and your perceptions and interpretations of the emotional impact on self and other stakeholders, the journal would be more effective as a self-development tool. It is a good practice to review and record the critical events at the end of the day. It enhances objectivity of the self-analysis.

On the flip side, gratitude journaling reinforces the habit of gratefulness. On the other hand, many people start a new practice with high enthusiasm but fail to sustain the motivation long enough to have lasting behavioural impact. The practice of gratitude journaling may either not be sustained or can degenerate into a mechanical routine devoid of passion. The individual who embarks upon the practice should be mindful of the need for persistence. It is important to remind yourself through self-talk about the value of the exercise and the need to practice long enough for it to become a habit. That is where the other two steps in the behavioural trilogy would help.

Gratitude Expression: It is not sufficient to recognize those who serve you and enhance your wellness and fulfilment. You need to express gratitude to the individuals. “Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it, ” wrote William Arthur Ward, the inspirational writer. How true! I am reminded of many parents who love their children immensely but fail to express it leaving scars of neglect and indifference in the psyche of the children even as they grow into adulthood. Similar is the case with thanksgiving. Just imagine how a doctor or a nurse would be overwhelmed by a demonstration of appreciation and warmth by the patients, relatives or general public. Don’t just have gratitude, express it!

Expression of thanks can take many forms and the best is a direct, face-to-face ‘thank you’. In the organizational setting, ‘thank you’ notes, surprise treats and on-the-spot celebrations are powerful motivators, much more than monetary incentives. The impact of appreciation is more when the communication happens as close to the trigger event as possible. Hence the power of spot rewards in workplace motivation.

Gratitude Meditation: Gratitude Meditation is the practice of combining meditation with gratefulness. Many of us do practice meditation. Most religions stress on expressing gratefulness to the Almighty, the Supreme Spirit. Gratitude meditation extends the focus of meditation to the events and people who impact your life.

It makes us to sift through our experiences and identify the moments for which we feel gratitude. It has moorings on the Buddhist thought which beseeches us to look for positivity in every moment, even in the rough and tough one. Like the seed deep inside the fruit, every experience has a core of positivity pregnant with possibilities.

When individuals and families realise the importance of gratefulness and practice the same, over a period it becomes a social habit. A transformational change in social behaviour can indeed start with individual initiatives. Now is the chance for moving from concept to practice. At the individual level, these three exercises can initiate your journey of gratitude practice. Let us remember when it comes to behavioural learning, you will never get a better teacher than yourself.

At the macro level, it makes immense sense for India to think of a designated National Thanksgiving Day. It would formalise a national context for gratitude practice. Of course, there is no need to add another holiday to the plenty that we have. What better choice can there be than to declare the Second of October, Gandhi Jayanthi to be our National Thanksgiving Day? An occasion to celebrate our appreciation for the countless people who made a difference in our lives.

*Ravi Kumar Pillai is a practising strategy consultant, trainer, coach, mentor and start up enthusiast based in Trivandrum. He can be contacted at ravikumarpillai9@gmail.com

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The facts and views expressed in the article are of the author

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