Gratitude and Generativity

Shawn Quinn is a consultant and teacher. He focuses on building positive organizations. He tells a story about the power of gratitude at work. He then makes an observation that helps to explain how the bilingual mind works.

An executive attended one of Shawn’s classes and afterwards decided to begin meditating. In a follow-up session the man made an important report. He found himself thinking about a problem person. He decided to make an honest exploration of the things he was grateful for in the problem person, and doing so changed how he saw the problem person. But it also had some other impacts. He became more desirous to practice gratitude and that changed how he saw many people in the organization.   His new view caused him to treat the people more positively. He began to focus less on the problems in the organization and more on what was right. The organization then changed. He saw an increase in commitment, effort and quality.

In reflecting on the story, Shawn notes that researchers find that people who have a discipline of regularly practicing gratitude also: exercised more regularly; report fewer physical symptoms; feel better about their lives as a whole; are more optimistic about the upcoming week; made more progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based) over a two-month period; are more likely to help someone with a personal problem or offer emotional support; have more positive attitudes toward school and their families; have higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality, optimism and lower levels of depression and stress; place less importance on material goods; are less likely to judge their own and others success in terms of possessions accumulated; are less envious of others; are more likely to share their possessions with others.

Shawn concludes with a paradoxical observation: “And, when people are grateful, they do all of these things without denying or ignoring the negative aspects of life.” This sentence suggests that people of gratitude are fully engaged in practical problems, but they are engaged differently, in a more generative way.

Gratitude in Staff Meetings

One day my daughter came home from work bubbling. She was in a really extreme, positive state. She told us that she was joyful because she had a staff meeting. Often these are less than inspiring. Her staff meetings had started to be filled with complaining and disengagement.  She said that at the start of the meeting she decided to try something new and uncomfortable.  She asked everyone to express some form of gratitude about the company.

The group then addressed typical issues, but the tone of the meeting was different. At the end everyone joyfully took accountability for assignments and expressed what a wonderful meeting it was. My daughter was on fire. She did something positive and nonconventional and created a positive and nonconventional outcome.



Have I ever been lifted by the expression of gratitude?

How could gratitude make a difference in meetings I attend?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Why I Started a Gratitude Journal

In October 2010, I began a gratitude journal. I was stimulated by the presentation of some research and also by an account given by a woman I know. Here are the two accounts.

Journal Entry: On Monday I listened to a presentation by Professor Kim Cameron. He reviewed some of research on gratitude. He showed a long list of psychological and biological benefits (including longer life) that come from doing things like keeping a gratitude journal. Then he showed something that really impressed me. First he pointed out that just as the heart has a rhythm (heart beat), the brain also has a rhythm that can be measured. He showed some graphs. They illustrated brain rhythms in a normal state and in a frustrated state. The two lines were jagged, but more so as frustration increased. He then showed the line when people were in a state of appreciation. The line showed such harmony that a number of the folks in the room reacted with a collective, “Oh.” Like them, I also thought it was quite striking. Kim said that if we can get into that state even once a day, it produces many of the long term payoffs he had cited earlier.

Journal Entry: I was at a meeting with some professional colleagues.  One of my colleagues is a highly accomplished woman.  She told us that she kept a gratitude journal for 18 months.  We were impressed.  Then she told us that she stopped.  We were surprised and we implicitly communicated a feeling of disappointment.  She picked up the implicit message and told us she quit because she no longer needed to keep the journal.  She did not need to write because she was living in a continuous state of gratitude.

I was so impressed that I later asked her to tell me more.  She indicated that her father was a very critical man and she grew up acquiring this same trait.  If she heard a wonderful concert, but the soloist missed a note, she remembered the mistake, not the beautiful music that surrounded it. She related to people in a similar fashion. Rather than celebrating their gifts and the things they did right, she looked for their flaws (and with loved ones, constantly tried to help them correct them!).  The quality of her life reflected her focus.  Because she focused on the negative, what she saw inside herself and all around her were the flaws and the problems.

Doing the gratitude journal was very difficult at first and she struggled to find three things every day that were positive.  But as she continued she experienced intrinsic rewards.  The more she lived in the state of gratitude more desire she had to live in gratitude and the easier it became to do so.  She extended her efforts and, in addition to continuing to write in her gratitude journal, involved her family in sharing three expressions of gratitude with each other at dinner every night.  Her life became increasingly happy and her whole family became more focused on the gifts of the day and each other, than their flaws.

She was in essence, telling me the following. Her brain was naturally programmed to attend to the negative. She engaged in a discipline that had some short term rewards like increased happiness. But after 18 months there was a deeper change, she had a new way of being.  When something happened, good or bad, her new framework led her to see and appreciate the good, even in the bad experiences.  This means an extraordinary transformation had occurred.  Her bad experiences were transformed. Because of her orientation, her bad experiences were instructive.  They increased her adaptive capacity.  This means all her experiences, good and bad, were accumulating for her good.  By committing to self-change, she reprogrammed her old self into a better self, and she was living a more positive life for herself and others.  In this story there is hope for all of us.

I have been keeping a gratitude journal since 2010. Once I started, I immediately began to notice positive differences and it was easy to keep going. Today I look back at over 1,500 pages. Each page is precious. Deciding to keep a gratitude journal was a very good thing to do.



What do I believe about gratitude?

What would happen if more gratitude was expressed at work?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Living Positively in Difficult Times

There is a woman who often teaches materials based on positive organizational scholarship. She was diagnosed with cancer two years ago. She determined to be proactive in going through the process and to do it in the framework of gratitude. She told me one amazing story after another. The stories were filled with the realities of physical and psychological agony. There were also filled with gratitude, positivity and resilience. In each story some unexpected, positive outcome emerged.

A short time later I received an email from one of the women on the staff of the business school. She was exposed to the research on positive organizations and it inspired her to take initiatives she never imagined that she could take.   In addition to doing her job, she volunteers to help other university employees by doing workshops and giving talks about the application of positive organizational concepts. They more workshops she does, the more the demand grows. She has now touched thousands of lives and delights in it. She wrote about what she plans to do in an upcoming session:

So, my plan is to talk about gratitude and the impact of keeping a gratitude journal, making a gratitude visit, sharing research such as the Nun Study, and my passion for being grateful. But I also plan to talk about the fact that in my personal experience, it is not always possible to be grateful every moment. Life happens. In my life, my Mom suffers from Alzheimer’s and has had it for five years. So far, it has been a slow progression, but it is still happening and it is not easy! My husband has been unemployed for two years and has low self-esteem. In addition, he has been told he needs open heart surgery and he is in total denial. None of these things is a piece of cake, but I am able to cope because of my faith and my belief that if we focus on all that we have to be grateful for in our lives, it will give us the strength to get through the rough times. What do I have to be grateful for? I am able to share this research with everyone and hopefully plant a seed or help them in their daily lives. I have a good job and a great boss. I have three children who graduated from college even though I barely had a dime to help them. I have five grandchildren. I am given the opportunity to sing in church. My Mom is still alive. My husband makes me laugh all the time…The list is endless!!!

These are stories of two women living in the real world. Choosing to live in gratitude does not drive away the problems of life. It does alter how we see life. It gives rise to the desire to make meaningful contributions. It allows us to live in love when it is natural to live in self-pity.


What do I believe about gratitude?

Have I ever consciously chosen to increase my level of gratitude?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Gratitude and Self Change

Gratitude has been called the parent of all virtues. Observing good alters the observer in many ways.  One way is that the observer stops seeing the other people as objects the observer is free to judge and act upon.  The observer instead takes a “growth mindset” and sees the observed relationship, team or organization as a living organism trying to adapt, survive or even flourish.

If the organization we observe is not a technical system but a human system, then the organization becomes the process of life itself. In an appreciative perspective we realize that we cannot successfully act upon an organization. We have to act with it. As we become aware that the organization is an extension of ourselves, we can make a powerful discovery. We can best change the organization by changing ourselves. By enacting a better version of ourselves we attract the people to a higher level of functioning.

The Power of Stories (and gratitude)

A friend of mine told me a story that I think about often and it still lifts me.  The value of his story in my life reminds me of a passage from a book by Virginia Pearce.

“I was speaking on a program with Emma Lou Thayne.  She is a wise and gifted writer.  On this particular day, she shared with a group of seminary students a tender and personal story of her daughter’s battle with an eating disorder.  She openly discussed her own struggle as a mother, trying to help her daughter.  It was touching.  Afterwards I said to Emma Lou, “I am in awe of your willingness to be so personal about your own difficulties.  I don’t know that I could do that.”

“I will never forget her answer.  She turned to me squarely, but with understanding.  Her gentle response went something like this: “Virginia, our stories are what make the difference, and if we can tell them honestly we can hope to help each other.  In the end, we have nothing to offer each other but our stories.”

“When I open-heartedly offer my stories to you, both of us feel less alone.  We both feel braver, stronger, and more complete.”(Virginia H. Pearce; A Heart Like His; 2006:80)

I recall this entry because of an experience.    I had to prepare a presentation on purpose for an up-coming conference.  I have been keeping a daily gratitude journal for over 3 years now. I decided to search my gratitude journal for the word purpose.  I found about sixty professionally oriented entries and about sixty personally oriented entries.  As I reviewed these accounts of things I once felt passionate about, I again felt passion.  In each one there was a lesson that excited me.

As I mapped all these on paper it became clear that I had a treasure trove of important and grounded cases from which I could construct a presentation.  I felt a sense of abundance and became excited about moving forward.  The gratitude journal has had many positive consequences. My focus has shifted and become more positive, and it has generally changed the way I experience life. An unanticipated result is that I have a gold mine of core stories that assist me in trying to make a difference, stories I can tell with honesty and with the hope of helping the world change.   Recording your core stories benefits you, sharing your core stories benefits everyone. They are a powerful leadership tool.

The Discipline of Gratitude

In positive psychology much research has been done on gratitude. It turns out that gratitude can be cultivated and that it opens the door to acquiring other virtues. Being exposed to this research I began to keep a gratitude journal. The discipline led me to more fully observe and reflect on the good that flows into my life.

I learned that observing good alters the observer.  I am more aware that I am part of something bigger than myself. I live in ecosystems that nurture me in ways I used to ignore. I now feel more inclined to selflessly contribute to those ecosystems.

In terms of organizations, I am less likely to see the organization as a thing. I tend to see it as a living organism that is trying to adapt, survive or even flourish.  The organization is an extension of life itself. A leader is not an expert who fixes the organization as a mechanic would fix a car. A leader must tend to an organization as a horticulturist nurtures his or her garden. Constant, loving attention, gives rise to rich crops.

Cultivating gratitude changes how we see and what we do. It is a positive discipline that generates positive outcomes.