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Can being grateful improve your performance?

Can being grateful improve your performance?

Stuart Barnett

Gratefulness can be a powerful tool to help lawyers work more productively, writes Stuart J Barnett.

“Reflect on your present blessings, on which every man has many, not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some” — Charles Dickens.

In every career there are going to be periods when it is a grind, when you are just going through the motions, and work is pretty much about paying the bills and not much more. That’s life, right? Ups and downs, swings and roundabouts, and all that…

Sometimes it picks up on its own, you get your mojo back and it’s all good. Other times, to get back on track you have to change the way you work, how you interact with colleagues and clients, or take a break to reassess career goals. You may even have to make some big changes: new employer, new location or even a complete career shift.

To improve your performance, to get that spark back it often requires a fresh perspective – to look at things in a new light. But this isn’t always easy when caught up in the hectic pace of work.

One simple way to find that fresh outlook is to be more grateful. Yes, sounds a bit Oprah-like, but relax a group hug isn’t about to break out. There are some tangible benefits to implementing gratefulness.

Benefits of gratefulness

Gratefulness, in short, is being thankful for what you have.

Simple in concept, but not always in practice, being more grateful can seem to be counterintuitive. After all, the reason things are not as good as they should be is often because something is missing, something you don’t currently have, right?

Yet, in addition to there being a strong historical tradition in religion, philosophy and literature for being grateful, the research provides strong evidence of the transformative impact of gratefulness.

According to a study conducted by Robert A Emmons, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Davis, (published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology) the benefits for people who practice gratitude are numerous, including: better sleep, lower blood pressure, they exercise more and take better care of their health, have higher levels of positive emotions, are more alert, alive and awake, are more optimistic and happier.

Professor Emmons has done numerous studies into gratefulness and points to four main reasons that gratitude can be transformational:

1. Gratitude allows us to celebrate the present. It magnifies positive emotions.
2. Gratitude blocks toxic, negative emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret – emotions that can destroy our happiness. (Theodore Roosevelt is attributed to having said: 'Comparison is the thief of joy'  – which puts it rather nicely).
3. Grateful people are more stress-resistant.
4. Grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth.

Even to gain a few of these benefits could have a positive impact on your performance.

Interestingly, given that one in three lawyers will experience depression in the course of their career, a study conducted by Professor Alex Wood, Director of the Behavioral Science Centre at University of Stirling, (published in the Journal of Research in Personality) found gratitude also protected people from depression.

Implementing preventative measures against depression that can also help with performance makes a lot of sense.

How to implement gratefulness

There are a lot of things we can be grateful for: people, places, experiences, what you have achieved, a great ride into work, anything. The key is turning your attention to that which you appreciate; but it is generally accepted being thankful for people and relationships is more meaningful then things and experiences.

One way to implement gratefulness is a gratefulness journal (the method used in many of the studies). Once a day, or once a week, or whatever you find works, write out three to five things you are grateful for and why. Go for quality and meaning over quantity.

The benefit of a journal is that it goes further than just having the intention to be more grateful, and becomes part of a ritual or routine, because it’s easy for other things to get in the way and to slip back into old habits. As Oscar Wilde put it: 'There is a fatality about all good resolutions. They are invariably made too soon.'

It’s easy to think about improving performance as gaining that next skill, working harder, chasing the next goal; all these have their place but sometimes implementing something as simple as gratitude can be the key to working more effectively and reducing stress and negativity.

And no matter where you are career wise, less stress and more positivity has got to be a good thing.

Stuart J Barnett is an executive coach who works with senior lawyers and teams to maximise their potential and improve the quality of their work life.

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