Article

The power of a culture built on gratitude

By Tiffany Apczynski, VP of Public Policy and Social Impact, Zendesk

Published September 21, 2020
Last updated September 21, 2020

In his posthumous letter for the New York Times, Senator John Lewis could have chronicled his many achievements and accolades. He also could have framed his parting words as a harsh rebuke to the institutions and people that carry on America’s legacy of oppression and brutalization for marginalized people.

Instead, Senator Lewis led with gratitude, empathy, and optimism in his dispatch that effectively gifted the torch of the civil rights movement—to which he had devoted six decades of his life—to the next generation.

You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society. Millions of people motivated simply by human compassion laid down the burdens of division. Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.

This is extraordinary. And it is also a clear direction to leaders, communities, and individuals that the steps we take that will push us forward must come from a place of gratitude.

As we struggle together through these turbulent, unprecedented, incredibly nuanced and isolating times, we begin to see that gratitude as a lifeline to our emotional survival is critical. We can no longer relegate this underused virtue to rarified greeting cards and Thanksgiving.

As we struggle together through these turbulent, unprecedented, incredibly nuanced and isolating times, we begin to see that gratitude as a lifeline to our emotional survival is critical.

In fact, according to a study conducted by leading psychologists Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, expressing gratitude improves health, focus, energy levels, and can be a game changer for depression and stress.

In one of their seminal research projects on gratitude, the psychologists found that “after 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude [daily] were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation,” according to an article published on Harvard Health Publishing.

Those same participants who journaled daily about gratitude also said they had helped someone with a personal problem or were more inclined to offer emotional support to another. So what we’re talking about in the example above is the potential for a little bit of extended gratitude on a regular basis to build a much-needed (and necessary) ecosystem by which we feel held up by one another.

Additional studies on gratitude have shown that regularly occurring episodes of gratitude improve relationships, and that “managers who remember to say ‘thank you’ to people who work for them may find that those employees feel motivated to work harder.”

[Related read: Gratitude at work: why giving is as good as getting]

Building a culture of gratitude

So let’s imagine your workplace at the moment. The endless Zoom meetings, the barrage of emails, chats, and other pings you are fielding nonstop. All the while balancing the emotional duress of social isolation or the pressures of being a caregiver. Perhaps a spouse has lost their job and your financial footing isn’t as stable as it once was. It’s a long list, right?

But in your day-to-day interactions, you are given regularly-occurring feedback that expresses gratitude for your perseverance. In meetings, the host closes it with thanking everyone for their time. Your manager kicks off each 1:1 acknowledging your hard work or expressing gratitude for your endurance of a trying time. First off, that’s got to feel pretty good, right? You feel heard, seen, recognized, understood. And when that kind of nurturing takes hold, it’s only natural you want to pay it forward; to make sure the next person you encounter also is reassured that everything they are doing right now is important, appreciated, and valuable. And so on and so forth.

And when that kind of nurturing takes hold, it’s only natural you want to pay it forward; to make sure the next person you encounter also is reassured that everything they are doing right now is important, appreciated, and valuable.

What we are looking at is an entire ecosystem of care being created simply by ensuring gratitude is every bit a best practice for reimagining your workplace as providing the proper IT equipment for remote work. As snacks and onsite perks of the workplace fall further into irrelevance, it will be the social emotional qualities of things like gratitude that become the cultural glue that keep it all together.

[Related read: Holding onto the rituals we’ve learned to love as we shelter in place]

Small shifts can lead to big change

Let’s take it outside the workplace. What if when you wake up each morning you try to find something you are thankful for? It can be as big as being grateful for your health or the health of your children or as small as how that first sip of coffee in the morning is truly the most glorious sensation in the world. Say you are grateful for your morning walk, that goat yoga exists, or that your neighbor waves to you every time they see you. The idea is to surface those small connections that can really mean everything. What are the chances you bring that same positive energy to your next interaction? That the simple act of remembering there are things that still make sense can be what helps you bring your best self to as many situations as possible, and inspires others to bring their best selves as well.

As we look to what the future holds for business, communities, and humankind, it will be gratitude (among other things) that helps lead the way, take down the barriers in our physical and virtual spaces, and potentially dawn a new era of relationships grounded in the simple, easy-to-do act of letting each other know that we are grateful for one another, especially now.