- COVID-19 forced many to work from home. It can be a solitary, lonely experience.
- Gratitude can improve well-being, optimism and happiness, easing the isolation of the virtual workplace.
- Digital tools can aid in making four simple gratitude activities a fun and enriching experience.
Historically speaking, people spend a lot of their lives at work, and as a result, get to know colleagues on a personal level. So for many of us, being on the receiving end of a welcome-back hug, a surprise coffee from a colleague, or the boss offering to take something off your work plate, inspires the rush of warmth and appreciation that is gratitude.
Gratitude is important. It has been proven to improve physical, psychological and social development. Expressing gratitude aids in well-being, optimism and socially, helps people make progress towards their goals.1 It also helps people feel less isolated, eases depression and is an important factor in happiness.2
Today, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we experience far less direct contact with our colleagues, and for many, communication predominately now happens across digital channels. Cut off from the day-to-day interaction with fellow workers, can the resulting increase in loneliness and depression3 be eased with a dose of digital gratitude?
Recent research suggests that online courses on wellness can positively affect mental health.4 MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that cover the rationale, methods and findings of evidence-based activities that promote enhanced well-being (such as expressing gratitude, counting blessings, using one’s strengths, increased social connection) combined with experiential exercises and other activities (such as mindfulness) have been found to provide a reliable positive effect on student well-being.
This is an important finding in today’s increasingly digital pandemic world. That gratitude can positively impact wellness, even in an online environment, is great news, and has implications for future employee happiness.
So what kind of evidence-based techniques to foster gratitude can we employ in the digital workplace? Psychologist Dr Robert Emmons, a leader in the field of gratitude research, has multiple exercises that can be used to up your gratitude levels,5 here are four to start with:
This concept is one of the simplest ways to practice gratitude. At the end of each day, write down three to five things you’re grateful for. While a piece of paper works fine, you can also find dedicated gratitude apps if you need more of a prompt (or a bit more fun!). Paying attention to the good things in your life, and specifically writing them down, helps you to tune into the many things you have to be grateful for and reinforces their emotional impact.6
There are many things to be grateful for both personally or professionally, and identifying them to acknowledge goes a long way to improving a person’s outlook on life. In your personal life, it could be as simple as a nice breakfast, the smile of a child or a sunny day. In the workplace, this can include gratitude for quality time spent with a colleague, a helping hand, constructive feedback or getting to the bottom of that to-do list.
Writing and delivering a letter of gratitude to someone (teacher, mentor, close friend or colleague…) you’ve never properly thanked helps boost your sense of gratitude and strengthens social bonds. Spend at least 30 minutes composing a letter of gratitude (around 250 words) describing why you are grateful, how the person affected your life and how much you reflect on his or her efforts. Next step, why not email it? You could even write it old-school and PDF the original to send.
The effect is even more potent if you read it out loud to the recipient — and just because you’re socially distanced doesn’t mean you can’t do so over a video call if you’re open to the vulnerability this might require!
Known as the ‘George Bailey effect,’ in reference to the title character in the classic movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, this exercise involves imagining a different life to the one you have. We are sometimes so accustomed to the good things in our lives that we take them for granted, but imagining their absence can shake you out of this habit. How would your life be impacted by these absences?
Write down imaginary life stories with altered circumstances. For example, what if a significant person in your life — a partner, child, friend — was no longer in your life? What if you were let go from your job or faced some kind of physical challenge? In one study, couples who wrote about lives where they never met their spouse brought greater happiness than when they simply reflected on the positives of their partner.7 It’s a difficult exercise to imagine potential negatives, but it’s also very effective because of that.
Giving grace to yourself
Being grateful 100 percent of the time is simply not possible. Sometimes, the feeling is just not there — and that’s okay! Most exercises around gratitude focus on others because true gratitude involves humility. However, there’s nothing wrong with being grateful for your own strengths and qualities as well as listing the things you do for others.
There are many digital tools that can help you with this. I use task management apps to keep track of the good things I have done. In your personal life, think about the simple actions where you help other people, whether you know them or not, or the actions that made you grow as a person. At work, write down all the good things you accomplished over the year, for you, other people or your company. Not only will you feel a deep sense of satisfaction but you will also have a useful list for your yearly review, a progress structure, and a good source of ideas on how to help others in the future
Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Gratitude exercises are a great way to deep dive into feelings of appreciation and could be a pathway to mastering more complex emotional skills such as empathy. In the midst of a pandemic, where loneliness in the virtual workplace and challenging circumstances in our personal lives, encouraging gratitude could go a long way to promoting wellness.