The Neuroscience of Gratitude

What you need to know about the new neural knowledge

Contributor: Linda Roszak Burton 
To learn more about Linda, click here.


image005.pngThis article is a companion piece to the “Discovering the Health and Wellness Benefits of Gratitude” entry in the October 2016 issue of the Wharton Healthcare Quarterly.

Along with the growing research on the health and wellness benefits of gratitude, there are collective studies being conducted on the correlates of gratitude and neuroscience and the impact on organizational wellness. With this new neural knowledge, new vocabulary words have been developed, including neuroleadership, neurobusiness, neuroinfluence, neuromarketing, and even neurorecruiting. In addition, there are refreshing attributes to well established leadership development contexts, such as how an active practice of gratitude increases neuron density and leads to higher emotional intelligence.

Organizational frameworks also benefit from this new neural knowledge. Corporate rewards and recognition programs that adopt the latest research can create greater opportunities to express gratitude and recognition, both found to improve overall psychological capital, PsyCap, of the workforce. Knowing what our brain looks like on gratitude is helping to improve employee engagement and the lessening of undesirable employee behaviors.

Are you looking to create a more positive culture in your organization? According to Globoforce, a multinational company supporting social recognition practices, gratitude is part of the secret sauce for building a great culture. In the award-winning book, The Power of Thanks, authors Eric Mosley and Derek Irvine (CEO and VP of Globoforce) highlight the importance of gratitude and appreciation as prime movers of greater productivity and a factor that helps organizations thrive.

And, we can even mix-up some “neurochemical cocktails” to enhance employee engagement and organizational performance. 

imageWeb1.pngA Shot of Dopamine
– whether expressing gratitude for what’s good in life or showing gratitude to someone who has helped us at work, neural circuitry in our brain (stem) releases dopamine. Dopamine makes us feel good! And, because it feels good, we want more. It triggers positive emotions, we feel optimistic, and it fosters camaraderie. It also drives prosocial behaviors. Ah-ha! Put that under how to enhance performance, because dopamine has been linked to intrinsic motivation in goal accomplishment, whether academic, personal, or professional. 

image001.jpgA Swig of Serotonin
– when we reflect on or write down the positives in life and at work, our brain (anterior cingulate cortex) releases serotonin. Serotonin enhances our mood, (think anti-depressant), our willpower, and motivation. 

And yes, serotonin has also been called the happy molecule. So what’s so bad about happy employees???

To stay on point…the more we activate these “gratitude” circuits, the stronger these neural pathways become and the more likely we are to recognize what’s going right instead of always looking at the problem. From a neuroscience view, or Hebb’s Law, “neurons that fire together wire together.” That’s where neuroplasticity - the brain's ability to form new neural connections throughout life – comes in. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? But I digress.

Just think about how easy it is to only notice the negative or how hard it is to break a bad habit. Those neural pathways are well traveled. The same can happen when we shift our brain’s focus to gratitude and recognition. According to research, this shift in how we think is proving to lead to more positive emotions and greater performance. In a study by the Cicero Group, the effect of performance recognition and employee engagement highlights how employees proactively seek to innovate and improve company efficiency.

From an organizational framework perspective, the neuroscience of gratitude is huge. And it’s worthy of consideration when revamping rewards and recognition programs. In an article by Cathy Leibow, "The Power of Thank You," she cited research by Forbes that showed 83 percent of organizations surveyed suffered from a deficiency in recognition. They found 87 percent of the recognition programs focused on tenure, which incidentally, has no impact on performance. So…does that mean a company’s greatest recognition is thanking employees on their 5,10, or 15 year anniversaries? Yikes! Counter that with the work of the Great Place to Work Institute, where “thanking - showing appreciation and recognition” is one of the nine practice areas set as criteria for making it onto the annual Fortune “100 Best Places to Work” list.

Another important study that highlights the positive impact of gratitude on organizational wellness is from the International Journal of Workplace Health Management, (Vol. 2 Iss: 3, pp.202 – 219), "Virtues, Work Satisfactions and Psychological Well-being Among Nurses." This study showed that gratitude was found to be a consistent predictor of several outcomes:

  • less exhaustion and less cynicism;
  • more proactive behaviors;
  • higher rating of the health and safety climate;
  • higher job satisfaction;
  • fewer absences due to illness.

If you think back to the release of the gratitude neurochemicals, the increased productivity, intrinsic motivation, and prosocial behaviors, we can easily seek to align these types of outcomes to our own workplace.

In the 2015 study on The Neural Correlates of Gratitude, researchers looked at brain activity and identified gratitude as a complex social emotion. Its value proposition in our personal and professional lives is just beginning to be realized. An author of this study, neuroscientist Dr. Antonio Damasio, is quoted as saying … “We are not thinking machines that feel, but emotional machines that think."   

In closing, here are a few questions to help you consider how to maximize this neural knowledge in your own profession and organization.

  1. What one action can you take, personally, to tap into your own gratitude circuitry and that of your co-workers?
  2. What can your organization or department initiate today to create opportunities to promote gratitude?


Contact Linda at:
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