Gratitude and Leadership

I want to try something out with you as you’re reading this. Take a moment and sit back in your seat, get comfortable. Now, I’d ask you to close your eyes, but then you wouldn’t be able to read the rest of this. Now that you’re comfortable, I want you to think over your life and pick out a person who has had a big influence in your life. This could be a parent, grandparent, aunt, mentor, teacher, boss, etc. The time frame could be from your early childhood or it could be from just last week. Now that you’ve picked out that person, I want you to think about why they have been such a big influence on your life, bonus points if you write it down. What would it look like for you to call that person and tell them everything you just thought and/or wrote down?

This fun little exercise was actually an experiment called “An Experiment in Gratitude,” done by a group on Youtube under the channel name SoulPancake as part of a series titled “The Science of Happiness”. The people at SoulPancake do experiments and videos primarily on wellness. In their experiment, they had people of different ages and backgrounds come into their facility and take a happiness survey to gather what their level of happiness was at the beginning of the experiment. Then they asked each participant to do this exercise. Participants were asked to call that person and read to them what they had written down. After the phone call, participants were then given the happiness survey, with the questions mixed up so it wouldn’t seem like the same survey. They found that the participants who wrote something down but did not get to make the phone call for whatever reason, had a happiness increase between 2% and 4%. For the participants who were able to make the phone call, there was found to be a happiness increase between 4% and 19%. Either way, expressing gratitude showed an increase in happiness.


I decided to give this a try for myself, so I busted out a pen and paper and I took some time to think and reflect on the people in my life. The person who came to my mind is my friend Debbie. Debbie is a friend from my home town who I met when I was transitioning from middle school into high school. She quickly became a good friend and a mentor. I took some time and I wrote down why I felt that she had been such a big influence in my life. As I was writing it all down, I found that there was this nice warm feeling in my chest that I recognized as happiness. And that feeling increased when I called her and told her everything that I wrote.

So why did this make me feel happy? Placebo effect? I don’t think so. Humans are neurologically wired to feel good when we express gratitude. An article by Linda Roszak Burton, a Brain-Based coach, explains that when we are expressing gratitude, we get a release of two very important brain neurotransmitters, Dopamine and Serotonin.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter within our brains that helps to facilitate normal everyday things such as movement, appetite, how we learn, and more. In the case of expressing gratitude, Linda writes that  Dopamine also triggers feelings of positive emotions that make us feel optimism, build trust between friends, and helps facilitate prosocial behavior. So Dopamine is relatively important. It is also connected to the reward center of the brain, so when we get a burst of Dopamine, our brain says, “Wow! That was great! I want more of that please,” causing us to want to repeat that action. The more this is repeated, then the stronger those neurological pathways are going to become, allowing us to better recognize the things that are going right in our life instead of the things that are going wrong.

nerve cells

Serotonin is also a neurotransmitter but it’s job is something slightly different. Whereas dopamine is focused on goal directed behavior and motivation, Serotonin is responsible for balancing out our mood, often referred to as the “happy chemical” due to its effects. When we express gratitude, Linda writes, we also get a burst of Serotonin being released inside of our brains causing an elevation in mood which in turn affects our goal directed behavior and our motivation, working hand in hand with Dopamine.

Expressing gratitude also has the ability to make you into a better leader. When you were thinking back on the person in your life who had made a significant impact on you, what were some of their qualities? For myself, when thinking back on the type of person Debbie is, I reflected on the fact that she gives credit where credit is due and she expresses so much gratitude. A good leader will be able to look at the people they are leading and be able to recognize their strengths and the things that they have done well, and vocalize it to that person. When you are able to focus on the things that the people you lead have done well, it creates a good environment for the group to work in and facilitates positivity instead of negativity.

So, expressing gratitude makes us feel good, but it may not be something we think about all of the time. We’re college students after all. We have so much on our minds and on our plates and gratitude might not be something we think about as often as we should, meaning we aren’t training those wonderful neurological pathways.

Expressing gratitude doesn’t have to be some long exercise where you do a ton of deep thinking and reflection. It can be something quick and easy that can flow in with our busy college schedules. I’ll share a couple of gratitude exercises that I have found success in with my own busy college life.

1. Quick and Easy Gratitude Journal!

Keeping a journal sounds daunting, I know. It even sort of seems like extra homework. But if you approach it in the right manner, it can be really helpful and can help with those wonderful neurotransmitters we talked about a little bit ago. So here’s the way I’ve gone about it and found success:

Either at the beginning of my day or at the end of my day, I take five minutes, and I write 3 things I am thankful for. Sometimes it’s as simple as listing 3 objects I am thankful for. Other times, I find that I am writing long paragraphs about certain people I am grateful for. I prefer to physically write this down, but when my bed is so warm and cozy, I will occasionally do it on my phone. If every day seems overwhelming, do it every other day, or once a week. Do what works best for you!

2. Quick Texts

This is one that I engage in quite often and have found that it has a dual effect by also making the other person feel great!

Take a moment between classes and instead of scrolling through Twitter or checking Snapchat, send a text to one of your friends, club member, coworkers, family member, whoever! Let them know how awesome they are and how much you appreciate them! Maybe you’ve been seeing them grow as a person or have seen that they just overcame a really tough assignment.

In my experience, these texts come at the perfect time for people. The world can be a brutal place, but your quick message could be the sunshine in your friends cloudy day.

These exercises can have a fairly decent impact on your mood and your day when you do them, but they only work if you put in the effort to do them. I don’t want you to feel as if I am pushing extra homework into your life. These exercises are hopefully something you want to do. I have found a few tips that work well for myself in ensuring that I do these practices, so I’ll share my secrets with you.

3. Sound the alarm

If you have a cell phone, it most likely has some sort of alarm or calendar on it. Set it to the time when you want to do your exercise. Most calendars will have the option for you to set it to repeat daily, weekly, monthly, or more. You’ll be able to be reminded that you want to do these exercises and hopefully, after a while, it will become part of your normal routine.

4. It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this.

Things are often easier when we are not on the journey alone. Grab a friend and let them know what you’re doing and see if they want to do it too! If they don’t want to do it, ask them if they will at least check in on your progress every now and then to see if you’ve been doing it.

Gratitude is important for so many aspects of our lives. Not only does it make us feel good, it has an outward impact on other people. It has the potential to create a domino effect. For example, if you send a text to your friend and express your love and gratitude to them, they feel good, then they may in turn send a similar text to another friend. Expressing gratitude can impact the way you lead by creating a sense of positivity and thankfulness within the group you lead. Expressing gratitude also benefits you personally as well as we have seen. Through gratitude exercises, we can see a difference in our daily lives and the way that we go about leadership.

-Justice Brewer, SO&L Student Assistant


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