Gratitude Pays

Author: Scott Beaulier, Dean of NDSU’s College of Business

It’s the week after Thanksgiving and the day after Giving Tuesday as I write this piece. Yesterday at NDSU was Giving Day, and we raised nearly $500,000 to support our university and the students we serve. This week and yesterday’s day of giving serve as important reminders of the importance of giving, the value in slowing down to realize how good most of us have it, and the joy that comes from gratitude.

Even though we are living better today than anyone has ever lived in the history of mankind, and even though Americans have it better than 99% of the world population (we truly are the 1%!), most of us go about our lives too busy to express gratitude. And, that’s especially true when it comes to our work lives. In a 2013 Harvard Medical Study, for example, 72 senior leaders all showed signs of burnout from their jobs. And, more generally, just 30 percent of the employees surveyed in a 2013 Gallup poll reported feeling engaged in their work.

While work can be a drag at times, pulling back and having a bit of gratitude pays off in several different ways. First, if you can have a sense of humor about the problems we face in modernity, an attitude of gratitude can be a great source of laughter. “First World problems” like running a shower so long that the water runs out or not being able to find a charger for your iPhone in an airport put into perspective just how far we’ve come.

We all probably have moments where we slip into negativity, such as, “Ugh, the dishwasher is full again,” but a little pausing, distancing, and laughter about where we are (and where we’ve come from) can bring the soul joy. The richest kings and queens of just 200 years ago could only dream of having heating systems within the control of their palms or Apps that tell them how to get from Point A to Point B on a precise, fast route that no longer requires physical maps. We truly live in amazing times.

Psychologists believe the joy that comes from gratitude does more for us than give us a good laugh. People who give to charities, for example, are healthier and happier people in a number of different carefully controlled studies. There are many different gratitude-health-happiness studies, but a simple and frequently cited study evaluated people who were asked to dwell on five negative things they experienced in one week and them compared their results to a group asked to write down five good things. The group focusing on the good things and not dwelling on the bad turned out to have lasting positive effects on their physical and mental health. (This is, in part, why we ask our kids each night before bed to talk about the things they’re grateful for from their day!)

Beyond the fact that gratitude is good for your mind and soul, a deeper reason for being grateful is that it can have long-lasting effects on the community. In a 2012 University of Kentucky study by psychology professor Nathan Dewall, found that giving thanks lowers daily aggression, hurt feelings, and overall sensitivity. The study’s bottom-line finding was that gratitude leads to a “nonviolent heart.”

In our highly polarized discourse, which is filled with “fake news” and 24-hour media coverage I can’t even stomach having my children near, everyone seems trigger happy to attack. The Dewall findings suggest that there may be an even better antidote to hate and aggression than instant retaliation and screaming at each other: gratitude.

So, in this holiday season (and throughout the year), here’s to gratitude! Thanks.