The Irony of Thanks

Being grateful seems like something you do for others, but it is a wonderfully selfish act as well. For years now, books on mental health have been touting the benefits gratitude offers, and the same benefits—increased productivity, connection, energy, health, and motivation—leak into our business lives. So although saying thanks has positive effects on those who hear it, it turns out that those who are thankful have lots to gain. After more than two decades of global research, authors of The Power of Thanks, Eric Mosley and Derek Irvine, have revealed several scientifically proven benefits of gratitude, saying that people who are grateful achieve more success, sleep better, are more optimistic, are better leaders, and are good corporate citizens. Further, their research observed that grateful people burn out less, create positive feedback loops, experience less stress, and have moral and social awareness.

Why is the simple gesture and act of gratitude so powerful? Some experts believe gratitude to be a great social movement, something so transformative it can create a global network of peace. In his Ted Talk, Brother David Steindl-Rast says “If you want to be happy, be grateful,” and adds that gratitude is the great connector because “all of us want to be happy.”15 How we imagine our happiness differs, but what we all have in common is the desire to be happy. According to Steindl-Rast, there is a connection between happiness and gratefulness, except most of us get the connection backward. He cites a common example that we are all familiar with: people who have everything that it takes to be happy, but are not happy, versus the people who suffer great misfortune, but are deeply happy. “It is not happiness that makes us grateful, it is gratefulness that makes us happy,” he says.

I once knew a singer-songwriter who quit the road (and his dreams of getting signed) for a “real” job. The job happened to evolve into a successful career at a corporate music label, where he was able to work with other writers, artists, and producers. He eventually rose to the executive label and led his team to sign some of the most exciting new international artists. When I asked him how he avoided becoming bitter over not being as fortunate as the artists he was now discovering, he told me he was so grateful every day to have the opportunity to be making a solid living in an industry he adores. Although his capacity might not be what he imagined, opportunities to create and do inspiring things appear every day, and that is what he is most grateful for. That gratitude and the enthusiasm for the opportunity to do good work infects those who work with him. This, says Steindl-Rast, is what we mean by gratitude.

He explains, “When something of value is freely given to us, gratefulness arises…spontaneously.… We cannot just have grateful experiences; we have to live gratefully.… We do this by becoming aware that every moment is a given moment, it’s a gift…this moment with all this opportunity makes it a gift.”

In your business, are you grateful for the customer who walks in the door, or the opportunity you have to meet and greet that customer day in and day out? That distinction is what separates an act of gratitude from an attitude of gratitude. It is not enough to offer end-of-year bonuses or discounts to loyal customers on Thanksgiving. As employers, service providers, and colleagues, we need to understand that every moment is a new gift, and if we miss the opportunity of this moment, another moment is given, and it must be seized. Steindl-Rast says that those people who avail themselves of this opportunity are the ones who enjoy true happiness.

This sounds so painfully easy, yet we know as we balance our books, take inventory, miss an important business call, or botch a delivery, gratitude is not our first reaction. When difficult things occur to us, it is a challenge to rise to that opportunity that Steindl-Rast says we are to be grateful for, however, we can rise to it by learning something from it. As he says, “The ones who avail to these opportunities, are the ones who make something of their lives.”

In business we must find great opportunities, but the currency of kindness shows that once the opportunities are in front of us, we don’t just seize them, we thank them. How to do this when there aren’t enough hours in the day, says Steindl-Rast, is very simple: “We have to build stop signs— the things that make us stop and see the wonderful richness.”18 In your business, maybe it is the customer who comes in every Monday without fail. Do you stop to notice the pattern and how your business is on that person’s agenda? Maybe it’s the referrals you keep getting month after month. Maybe it’s the great testimonial someone just gave you on your website.

The “look” phase requires that we open up our senses and our hearts to that opportunity; to experience the joy. That’s when the opportunity invites us to do something—to go. At the “go” point, we can be creative with the opportunity, spin it into something greater, or take a deep hard lesson from it to ensure it never happens again, all the while being grateful that the opportunity has presented itself in the first place. The moment is valuable beyond compare and has been freely given, and those opportunities, says Steindl-Rast, are abundant. “If you’re grateful, you are not fearful, and you act out of a sense of enough, out of surplus and not scarcity, and you are willing to share.”

A network for grateful living sounds good to me, and even better when you turn that onto business. Can you begin by engaging in gratitude through “stop, look, and go”? Can you see how your business provides an opportunity that makes you feel grateful and act gratefully every day?