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Want to feel better about work and life? Try saying these two words:

“Thank you.”

If you’ve ever had to spend time with a professional complainer, you’ll know just how demotivating and energy sapping they can be. Their language, amateur dramatics and catastrophising is more than a little wearing. It diminishes your own sense of happiness and wellbeing because it affects how you feel.

Our feelings are our conscious interpretation of an underlying emotion. While we have no control over our emotions because they are generated at a subconscious level, we use our prefrontal cortex to regulate our feelings. This is important because we are heavily influenced by the emotional intensity of those around us. The contagion of emotion means that if you’re surrounded by naysayers and doom and gloom merchants you’re more at risk of becoming infected with their negativity germs, which then manifests though your choice of language and thoughts.

Which is why consciously choosing to adopt a more positive outlook using reframing and reappraisal can help. If you’re telling everyone (and yourself) how frustrated, fearful, embarrassed or angry you are, that negativity can quickly spiral further down.

Feeling good about what you do in work and life is about

Taking pride in your work,

Feeling inspired to give your best,

Staying hopeful that things will improve,

Being grateful for what you already have.

Feeling grateful and expressing our thanks is an extremely powerful way to help us pull through even the most challenging of situations.

This is because practicing gratitude shifts our state of mind, altering those neurochemicals that enable us to move to a more positive mindset. Gratitude enhances our psychological wellbeing, increases stress resilience and boosts interpersonal relationships.

Expressing gratitude makes us happy

New research by Kahnt and others have found a neurobiological explanation for why being grateful makes us feel happy. Choosing to be generous was shown on fMRI scans to lead to increased activity in the part of the brain (the temporo-parietal junction or TPJ) associated with empathy and social cognition, and greater connectivity between the TPJ and ventral striatum relating to increased levels of happiness.

For the workplace this implies how choosing to be generous in sharing knowledge, information and being kind to your colleagues can have a huge pay off. Working in an environment where you feel supported and encouraged by the generosity of others motivates us to want to return the favour.

Work by Fox and Damasio has also demonstrated how feeling grateful activates those brain areas associated with feelings of reward, moral cognition, subjective value judgments, fairness, self-reference and economic decision-making.

“ Gratitude rewards generosity and maintains the cycle of healthy social behaviour.” – Antonio Damasio

Feeling grateful makes us more generous, and is self-perpetuating

When we are feeling grateful we become more attuned to the process. One study showed how gratitude training led to an increase in Paying-It-Forward acts of generosity three months later. It seems the more we practice, the more we adapt towards a gratitude mindset that spontaneously moves us towards more prosocial activities.

This is a great example of neuroplasticity in action based on the Hebbian theory that neurons that fire together, wire together. Practicing a mental skillset in this way strengthens those neural circuits that over time become embedded in our automatic behaviours.

In a world that can appear overflowing with negative news, uncertainty and stress, expressing gratitude is a simple way to build and maintain greater mental resilience.

It can be practiced in a number of different ways including:

1. Keeping a gratitude journal

Write down 3-5 things you’re grateful for either at the beginning or end of the day.  Remember too that the process of writing with a pen helps us to process our thoughts in a different way than when using a keyboard. Buying a nice journal and your ‘gratitude’ pen makes you feel good even before you’ve started. Expressing positive emotions in this way makes it harder to stay stuck, or to ruminate on other negative thoughts that can otherwise become all consuming.

2. Cultivate gratitude in a jar

My friend Angela Lockwood author of Switch Off: How to Find Calm In a Noisy World uses a glass gratitude jar. For this she suggests writing your notes of gratitude on colourful post-it notes that you then fold and pop into your gratitude jar that starts to swell with gratitude over the months. Then at the end of the year (or whenever you feel in need of a gratitude top-up) you can enjoy reading some of the notes that you’ve put in your jar over the course of time.

3. Write a letter of gratitude to another person

Expressing gratitude this way, even if the letter is never sent, is another way of using words with a positive association to shift your perspective to a happier place.

As Andy Puddicombe from Headspace advises, when we feel down and grey we forget that the sky is still blue above those grey clouds, even though we can’t see it. Expressing gratitude is an effective way to help us start to see those patches of blue more clearly again.

4. Call out the good in others

We’re often swift to criticize, blame and judge others who we perceive as having done something wrong. But how often do we call out a person for doing something good? Acknowledgment of a job well done, being appreciated for having gone the extra mile not only makes the recipient feel good (a nice little extra squirt of dopamine) it strengthens relationships and elevates mood in all concerned.

This is where having something like a ‘praise wall’ at work to extend gratitude and thanks to colleagues can be a huge workplace happiness booster.

It’s about saying thank you to your work colleague for their support and encouragement on a recent project.

Or showing your appreciation in buying a small gift or sharing a hug (where appropriate).

When we feel happy, acknowledged and respected, everyone benefits and productivity levels skyrocket.

Stuck on what you are grateful for?

If you’re in a job that you hate with people you can’t stand, finding something to be grateful for can be a challenge. This is where taking time out to consider what you have beyond work can be helpful. Because no matter your circumstances, there will always be something you can be grateful for such as living in a safe place, having a roof over your head, food on the table and family and friends. Reminding ourselves of those good things no matter how small can have a huge effect on our wellbeing.

Be grateful to the invisible.

Saying thanks gets easier with practice so a great way to start is to look for the opportunity. There are many people we interact with on a daily basis who often get little acknowledgement, not because they don’t deserve it, but because we’re so wrapped up in our own little bubble that we don’t see the need.

You can make their day with a smile and thank you for the person at the supermarket checkout, the postie, waitress, barista, hotel cleaner, bank-clerk etc.

It helps us to keep a sense of perspective in a world of first world problems.

Reminding ourselves of all that we do have reduces our tendency to drift into the “what-ifs” and negative self-talk that we’re so good at inflicting on ourselves. Because we are human and therefore fallible, imperfect and prone to making mistakes, practising gratitude creates a deflector shield to protect us from seeking that impossible perfection that can otherwise lead to resentment, envy and frustration.

What ways do you use to show your gratitude and say thank you?

Does your workplace encourage generosity of spirit?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, keynote speaker and best-selling author. You can now pre-order her new book ‘The Natural Advantage’ due for publication in October 2024.

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