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Gratitude journals aren’t the only — or even the best — way to show gratitude. I know that might come as a shock to so many of your systems, but hear me out for a second. The goal of this article is not to denounce something that brings joy to so many people around the world: their daily gratitude practice. Instead, it is to suggest that the gratitude journal is only part of an overall gratitude habit you can develop.
We look at the gratitude journal as just the tip of the iceberg, the entry point in your life to develop more emotional intelligence and acknowledge the benefits of others. Your master class goes beyond the journal itself. Gratitude, for too many years, has been thought of as an introspective daily habit that one writes down in a journal and hides away on their bedside table.
Well, that is only half the story. Gratitude is an inherently pro-social tool. Gratitude is the acknowledgment that you’ve received a benefit or value from others, and a way to close that loop on the benefit received is to either pay it back or pay it forward.
I’m not saying that you have to pay back every benefit you’ve ever received in life. But acknowledging those benefits and blessings allows you to repay or pay that benefit forward to others to keep the cycle going. This pro-social trait can help you develop stable, healthy, social relationships that create a contagious upward spiral in your life.
In the world of leadership and creativity, stable social relationships are needed for innovation. If a leader feels secure with others, they won’t fear speaking out with a new idea. If that stable relationship is not built, the fear of speaking out will cripple the creative leader and will, in turn, create stagnation.
A gratitude journal allows you to write down a response to the prompt: What are you grateful for?
At 7:47, we believe that the greatest transformation occurs when we ask people, “Who have you never thought to thank?”
We also ask, “What are the positive benefits you can attribute to a negative event in your life?” By asking yourself this question, you can gratefully process unpleasant memories to help bring closure to them. This kind of processing helps you adaptively cope with negative life events. Reframing a memory from your past by writing it down or talking it out helps destigmatize negative emotions associated with that memory and replace them with positive emotions. By writing down or talking out a negative memory, you gain resilience and self-confidence by recognizing the tough times you have gotten through.
So therein lies the problem with gratitude journals. Typically, you write down a positive autobiographical memory in your gratitude journal. By doing so, you’re potentially causing harm to that positive emotion. Scientific research suggests that when you experience positive emotions from recalling a positive memory from your past, you shouldn’t write it down or talk it out. You should meditate and let it ruminate and replay in your head.
When you write down a positive memory that you’re grateful for, you’ll begin to analyze the event and convince yourself you’re not worthy of such positive benefits. You might begin to question yourself: “Who am I to receive such blessings? This must be wrong!”
Over time, you’ll develop resilience by looking back at your journal and knowing that you have gotten through tough times before and you can get through tough times again. You also incorporate the negative event into your overall life story that you can communicate with others as hope, pride and optimism to help them get through their tough times. It’s not by being perfect that people find moments to connect with and be inspired by you; it’s when you communicate your vulnerabilities. Vulnerability and gratitude don’t make you weak — they make you strong, brave and beautiful.
And therein lies the ultimate bone we have to pick with the gratitude journal: Your gratitude journal will likely never be seen by anybody.
We want to change that. Use gratitude in a pro-social way so that you can help others with your inspirational story, with your vulnerabilities, with your traumatic moments that you’ve now processed. So instead of writing in a journal, write a letter or pick up the phone and make gratitude part of a communal experience. The benefits that occur when you share gratitude in a small group setting not only affect you positively but others as well. We call it “observational gratitude.”
A few suggestions for practicing observational gratitude:
1. Next time someone on your team speaks out with an innovative idea, give gratitude to their confidence.
2. Next time someone has an idea that becomes successful, celebrate that small win. Watching a team member be rewarded will inspire others to generate creative ideas as well.
3. Next time an innovative idea fails, give gratitude to the lessons learned through that unsuccessful endeavor. Often, it’s through our failures that we learn the most.
When trying to infuse observational gratitude into your culture, think about experiences. The best way is to put your team into a room (or Zoom room) and give them the space to practice peer-to-peer gratitude. Gratitude given in a small-group setting can strengthen the relationships of all team members, even if they did not directly share gratitude with each member. Focus on empowering your team to share why a team member’s actions made them feel inspired to work at the company, not just what the team member did to receive gratitude.
This behavior will spark an upward positive spiral, inspiring them to be kind to a stranger, give thanks to a tough client or even help heal a prior wound. These acts will have far better pro-social benefits than just writing something down and storing it away in your desk.