Gratitude: A Practice for All Seasons

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silver heart-shaped pendant with the word Grateful engraved on it

Gratitude is a frequent topic of conversation in the United States during November and December. Thanksgiving is a national holiday with an underlying theme of gratitude for the blessings in our lives, and most of the country's major religions have December holidays that extend that theme. So this is a perfect time to add to the conversation by exploring three things about gratitude.

The first thing about gratitude is a question: What the heck is gratitude? Most of us would respond with some variation of the quality of being thankful.

But gratitude can be more than simply a transient emotion. "Feeling gratitude starts with the realization of what we have received from others and what it has cost them (emphasis added)," says Robert Emmons, a psychologist and author at the University of California, Davis, who researches the effects of gratitude.1

When I first read this sentence a few weeks ago, I stopped and read it a second time. What caught my eye was the phrase and what it has cost them. Being thankful is a reflexive response for many of us. But how often do we think about what the gift we have received has cost the giver?

From childhood and into my young adult years, my paternal grandmother faithfully sent a birthday card each year, and each year she faithfully enclosed a two-dollar bill.2 I was always thankful, even if I didn't always have the good manners to send her a note saying so.

But I don't think I ever thought very hard about what it cost her to give me that gift. She dropped out of school as a young adolescent and spent most of the remainder of her life working in a shoe factory along a fast-flowing river in New Hampshire. She did piecework, sewing buttons and buckles and tongues to uppers before they were stitched to the sole. My grandmother did not earn hourly wages or a salary; she was paid based on how much she produced. Two bucks was a big deal to her. There was a time when it might have taken her a couple of hours of noisy, taxing, and soul-deadening work to clear that much cash.

I was a kid with limited understanding of harsh realities of life, so I forgive myself for not thinking very hard about what it cost my grandmother to give me my annual birthday gift. But my appreciation would have been deeper and richer had I realized that I was missing an important element in my practice of gratitude. It is worth repeating what Robert Emmons highlighted above — gratitude must include recognition of what the act of giving and the gift itself has cost the giver.

Here's the second thing about gratitude — the practice of gratitude is great for your health and can contribute to your strength as a leader. Wall Street Journal Turning Point columnist Clare Ansberry notes that "Studies have shown that it [gratitude] strengthens our immune systems, helps us sleep better, reduces stress and depression and opens the doors to more relationships."3 Time recently published an article citing gratitude as a path to more patience, improved relationships, and better self-care.4 Gratitude may be a hedge against overeating, depression, and sleep loss. To cap the benefits, gratitude can contribute to overall happiness that lasts.5

Enter "gratitude and leadership" in your favorite search engine and you'll find both anecdotal and research-based evidence that leaders are more effective when they regularly incorporate gratitude into their daily lives. I recently heard a story about an executive at a Midwestern university who made it a daily practice to send three short, hand-written notes of appreciation and thanks before heading home in the evening. Recipients could be anyone — student, faculty, staff, or visitor — who had done something to sand the rough edges off the day and make the university a better place for all who lived and worked there.

It took the executive perhaps 10 minutes to write these notes, but the dividends were far out of proportion to the time invested. His simple gesture raised awareness of the power of gratitude throughout the campus. Simply put, he inspired people to be more aware of what others were contributing to the good of the whole. And he wasn't simply being nice — inspiration is one of the most powerful tools a leader can use to help people change for the better.6

As a final note, remember that gratitude is a practice that knows no season. The holidays traditionally inspire us to be more conscious of gratitude and express our feelings more frequently, but there's no expiration date. Giving or receiving thanks can be most powerful when least expected.

Gratitude is a practice, and getting started is simple. Make a commitment right now that you will express gratitude three times today. Put three quarters in your left front pocket. Your objective is to empty your pocket by the end of the day. Move a quarter to your right pocket each time you express your thanks to someone for something they've done while silently acknowledging what it cost them to do it. Pretty easy. And the dividends to you and others will far outweigh your investment.


  1. Clare Ansberry, "Beyond Thankful: Cultivating a Life of Gratitude," Turning Points, Wall Street Journal, November 13, 2017.
  2. The $2 bill is still legal tender. It features the portrait of Thomas Jefferson on one side and the signing of the Declaration of Independence on the other. According to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, over 179 $2 bills were produced in FY2016.
  3. Ansberry, "Cultivating."
  4. Jamie Ducharme, "7 Surprising Health Benefits of Gratitude," Time, November 20, 2017.
  5. Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, "7 Things People Do to Help People Change," Harvard Business Review, July 20, 2015.
  6. Ducharme, "7 Surprising Health Benefits."

Bill Hogue is senior clinical professor of information science and executive consultant for enterprise initiatives at the University of South Carolina.

© 2017 William F. Hogue. The text of this blog is licensed under Creative Commons BY 4.0.