The neuroscience of gratitude02.03.21
Building a better business starts with saying ‘Thank you’
Chief Innovation Officer
Building closer bonds with other people is a core survival mechanism for us humans. Looking back to the ‘tribe and fire’ history of human life on earth, we can see how much we’ve always needed other people to survive. Gratitude plays a huge part in that. Giving thanks and expressing appreciation have been revered in many cultures around the world for thousands of years. Even in ancient Rome, lawyer, scholar and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero famously said that gratitude was not only the greatest of all virtues, but the ‘mother’ of all of human feelings. It is a core human emotion.
Native Americans have always had a deep tradition of routinely giving thanks. The Ottawas, who live in the northern regions of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, have regular feast days and ghost suppers going back hundreds of years to show gratitude for the people and the harvest. In these indigenous groups, wealth is defined not my material goods, but the idea that the wealthy are those who give and share with others. Gratitude is espoused on a daily basis among these communities because they understand how important it is to the strength of their community.
In 2021, human nature hasn’t much changed. Finding ways to work closer together is part of our survival as a race. But it’s also shown to be an incredibly important part of building a successful business. But before we get to the impact on the workplace, let’s look quickly at exactly what happens to our bodies when we give or receive gratitude.
The neuroscience of being thanked
When we express gratitude for something or receive thanks, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin – two important neurotransmitters that regulate our emotions – which makes us feel good. By regularly feeling grateful and expressing thanks to others, we can help these neural pathways to strengthen and eventually automate. The more often a neural pathway is activated, the less effort it takes to stimulate the same pathway next time. Eventually, expressing gratitude becomes even stronger and more important to us.
The part of the brain that is responsible for all of our emotional experiences is called the limbic system. It’s made up of the thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala, hippocampus and cingulate gyrus. Studies have shown that it’s the hippocampus and the amygdala (the main areas that regulate our memory and emotions), that light up when we feel grateful. So we can see that giving or receiving small gestures of thanks and kindness activates the hypothalamus and subsequently impacts all of our bodily functions that are controlled by the it – including one of the most important areas of our overall wellbeing - sleep.
A number of studies looking at gratitude and appreciation have found that, when feeling grateful, people show a marked reduction in levels of cortisol - the stress hormone. Research has shown that grateful people often have better cardiac functioning and are more resilient to stress. This now starts to illustrate how important gratitude at work can be to things like employee performance too.
We can see in this image exactly how neuroscience plays a part in creating the right environment for employees to blossom. Expressing gratitude at work becomes a proactive driver towards building close bonds, and fostering psychological safety and togetherness with our colleagues.
Gratitude at Work
Studies have shown that when students express gratitude to parents, teachers, or coaches, they feel closer and more connected to them. Expressing gratitude to the people we work with strengthens our social bonds. By doing so, we increase the sense of community wellbeing, which actually encourages us to take on bigger challenges in our lives and at work.
This becomes hugely important for one of the most vital areas of the employee experience: psychological safety. You’re probably familiar with Google’s large experiment that looked at what made a successful, high-performing team. Project Aristotle found that psychological safety – more than anything else – was critical to making a team work.
When employees practice gratitude and thanks at work, they become more likely to take on new assignments, more willing to go the extra mile and more likely to work as part of a well-functioning team. Research shows us that gratitude at work leads to less exhaustion, higher job satisfaction, fewer absences due to illness and generally more proactive and positive behaviours. So, giving and receiving recognition within in a team, builds those important social bonds and increased connectedness that is so important to team success.
Recognition for Personal and Organisational Success
I think the neuroscience and psychological research into giving thanks and expressing gratitude is pretty significant. So much so, that many professionals will prescribe practising gratitude to people to help them deal with their emotional wellbeing.
But the evidence is also clear; recognition isn’t just part of a successful workplace wellbeing strategy, it’s also part of organisational success. I really believe that an organisation cannot be successful unless its people get the recognition they deserve on a regular basis. Employee recognition is not just a nice to have, it’s a fundamental element of a well-functioning business.
Our report, The psychology of recognition, is jam-packed with neuroscientific research to help your business case for recognition. Read it for free here.
Gethin is an award-winning psychologist who has been helping some of the world’s largest organisations to improve their employee experience and wellbeing for two decades. The last 10 years have been spent working as part of the senior leadership team here at Benefex where Gethin leads our thought leadership in the market.
As a frequent writer and speaker on employee experience and employee wellbeing, Gethin has been featured in Forbes, The Guardian, The Huffington Post and The Financial Times as well as all major HR, Reward and Pensions publications. Gethin has been listed as one of the world’s top 101 Global Employee Experience Influencers for the last two years running, is listed on the Employee Engagement Powerlist, is one of LinkedIn’s top global contributors and an Inspiring Leader 2021. Gethin is also a regular keynote speaker, Chair of the UK Government-backed Engage for Success Wellbeing Thought Action Group, a Key Stakeholder in UK Government Transport Employee Wellbeing KPI’s and a Fellow at the RSA.
In 2018, Gethin published his first book - the HR bestseller ‘A World of Good: Lessons From Around the World in Improving the Employee Experience’, which has gone on to inspire HR and Reward teams at some of the world’s best known brands. In 2022, Gethin co-authored his second book ‘Das Menschliche Büro - The Human(e) Office’ a collaboration between leading academics and workplace professionals from across Europe.