I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude this week.

Firstly Jane, a friend of mine from school, nominated me on Facebook to declare three positive things each day for five days and to pass this nomination on to three of my friends.

Now ordinarily I am not a huge fan of the “get me a million likes because I’m seriously ill” or “share this picture of a mis-treated animal to show you care” type of post that Facebook is awash with.

I believe we need to give real time and real money to the causes we care about and spend time with people we know who are suffering, rather than soothe ourselves with an instant LIKE or SHARE.

So that’s the grouchiness out of the way, let’s get back to the gratitude.

Jane’s nomination struck a chord with me

I’ve been buried in books about emotions over the last couple of weeks as the subject of my Masters dissertation is about working with emotions in coaching.


All roads to happiness and leadership start with positive emotions

In the Emotional Life of your Brain, the neuroscientist,  Richard Davidson, says:

“Emotion works with cognition in an integrated and seamless way to enable us to navigate the world of relationships, work and spiritual growth.  When positive emotion energizes us, we are better able to concentrate, to figure out the social networks at a new job or new school, to broaden our thinking so we can creatively integrate diverse information, and to sustain our interest in a task so we can persevere.”

For over thirty years, Davidson has been researching how our relationships, experiences and moods change our brain – what is now known as neuroplasticity.  In that time, study after study shows that positive emotions, such as gratitude, help us handle adverse life experiences,  as well as improving our physical and mental well-being. 

I took Jane’s nomination as a nudge to dive into this world of positive emotions.

I discovered gratitude is not an easy option

I struggled to write down three positives on that first day.  Most people who know me would characterise me as an upbeat kind of person, able to take the positives out of all sorts of challenging situations.  Indeed I had scored at the top end of Davidson’s Emotional Style survey for Positive Outlook and Resilience, so why was I finding this so difficult?

And then a sentence from Nancy Kline’s Time to Think jumped out at me:

“Society teaches us that to be positive is to be naïve and vulnerable, whereas to be critical is to be informed, buttressed and sophisticated.”

I realised that the concept of gratitude was fighting with my life-time conditioning.  Writing down my positive points and showing them to others was in effect exercising my brain.  And it felt a little like the first day back at the gym after time off for over-indulgence.

Beware judging yourself

I also became aware that I was censoring myself.  On Day 2 of my gratitude challenge I was most pleased that I had completed a client proposal that I had been putting off.

My Facebook friends know I am on holiday at the moment, so  I held back from mentioning this work-related achievement.  Would they think I was what my kids might call a “bit of a loser” for working when I could be sunbathing?  Would they think that I had no control over my work/life balance?

So I judged myself, found myself vulnerable, and left that achievement out.

Gratitude doesn’t have to be about you

One of my friends who I nominated for the challenge  wrote about seeing an old, old man cross a busy street, causing a traffic to come to a standstill.  But his persistence and independence and his impact on the “go fast” world made her smile.

Gratitude doesn’t have to be about the big stuff

As the days went on, I realised I didn’t have to search for big events that had happened in my day. I just had to really, really notice the little things that had made me happy, but which I had let pass too quickly – whether that was laughing with my kids or watching the huge moon rise over the sea, or falling asleep to the sound of the waves on the beach.

Which reminded me of the William Blake poem:

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”

Cultivate an attitude of gratitude

My Facebook challenge is over, but I have added “being grateful” to my daily journal writing and I am also going to encourage those I coach to do the same, as mood most definitely matters.

“Research suggests that the leader’s mood matters most of all. When people are fearful, anxious, or angry, they shut down.  When they are generally optimistic, energized and excited, they think more clearly and creatively, have more resilience and simply perform better.”

~ Boyatzis and McKee, Becoming a Resonant Leader

I would highly recommend journal writing. I joined one of Moyra’s journal safari sessions a couple of weeks ago and have been keeping a daily journal ever since. The main benefits for me is it’s helped me to keep perspective in these times, not to be too hard on myself and be thankful for the things I have achieved.

Justin Ellis

Innovation & Strategy, British retail bank