Over the last 15 years, psychological science has made leaps and bounds in understanding the mental and health benefits of giving and receiving gratitude. Along with being a nice thing to do, it can increase our tendency to feel more hopeful and optimistic about the future, help us better cope with adversity and stress, bring about fewer instances of depression and addiction, and actually improve the quality of our exercise and sleep.
In order to unlock the full potential of gratitude in the workplace however, one must first understand how it affects us physiologically. All too often workplace gratitude is viewed as lip service or a by-rote function when it has the potential to deliver much more than just good vibes.
The Virtuous Cycle
When someone receives a sincere “thank you” or shows gratitude for another’s work, it activates the regions of our brain associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine, as you may already know, is the “reward” neurotransmitter, and it feels really good to get. It feels so good that it kicks us into something researchers call the “virtuous cycle” – the dopamine reinforces the experience, the brain literally becomes hooked on a feeling and begins seeking out similar interactions. It’s similar to how chemicals in drugs get us addicted to them – the difference is you’re making the chemicals in your head. This is what getting “high on life” is.
The National Institute of Health also discovered through examining blood flow in the human brain that feelings of gratitude jump-start activity in the hypothalamus, the region of the brain that governs all manners of essential body functions, including eating, drinking, and sleeping. So in addition to getting us hooked on a virtuous cycle, gratitude also invigorates one of the most crucial areas of the brain, providing additional benefits like improved quality of sleep, which in turn lowers stress and anxiety.
But why does gratitude do this to us? Why is it such a universally beneficial action? The answer may lie in how our early ancestors evolved their communication skills. A new scientific view includes gratitude in a set of emotions known as “moral affects” that developed in our early evolution. Chris Mooney from Nautilus explains:
“Together with empathy, sympathy, guilt, and shame, [gratitude provides] a moral compass of actions that we don’t have the time or mental bandwidth to think deeply about. These instinctive feelings impel vital behaviors that help us survive (or did in our evolutionary past, in any case).”
Gratitude and helping others may have developed from our early tribal existence, when we discovered the usefulness of helping and caring for our relatives – what helps them helps promote the genes we share with them. It might also explain why it’s so difficult to get gratitude right with non-relatives, as early homo sapiens would have been reluctant to expend valuable energy helping a stranger when there was no guarantee it would beneficial to the tribe.
Regardless, scientists advise that showing gratitude within a group of strangers is still remarkably potent, and the best way to build trust. The basic reciprocity model, “you scratch my back, I scratch yours”, brings benefits to the whole group by seeding the aforementioned virtuous cycles and stirring up our instinctual feelings of survival through teamwork. More and more, psychological science is rallying around the idea that cooperation, not competition, is a dominant human trait.
Gratitude is hardwired in our brains as a function of survival, so no wonder recognition and respect are top engagement drivers in the workplace. No wonder we become so disengaged when we don’t get gratitude from our peers and bosses, and no wonder those workplaces who try to get by without it only succeed through extraordinary attrition. Don’t ever think that an act of gratitude, however small, is wasted. It might just be the one thing that keeps us all working together.