Want a happier personal life? Try leading with gratitude

Here's how to keep the focus on what's meaningful, special and joyous in your life.
Image: Woman writing on Notepad
Maintain a daily gratitude journal — writing down anything and everything you're thankful for at the end of each day.Mayur Kakade / Getty Images
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By Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton

One of the most common sources of life dissatisfaction these days is the lack of quality time spent with those we love. As if umpteen e-mails and meetings a day weren’t bad enough at work, at home now we’ve got devices stealing our attention. Kids are glued to YouTube or Snapchatting with friends. We adults communicate less voice-to-voice with others than ever before, instead we send emoji-laden texts that say we care.

After surveying more than one million working adults over the last decade, and interviewing hundreds more in person, we have identified a range of practices that the happiest people have implemented to ensure they’re connecting with their loved ones regularly in meaningful ways.

In our executive coaching practice, we typically encourage those we work with to maintain daily gratitude journals — writing down anything and everything they are thankful for at the end of each day. Even if you can’t find time to do it daily, do it when needed, says New York City marketing company owner Dave Kerpen. “When I am in a bad mood, I walk away from the situation, open up the Notes on my phone, set the timer for two minutes, and start typing the things and people I’m grateful for,” he said. “Two minutes later I come back to my team, or my family, or my wife, and I’m in a better mood —every single time.”

“When I am in a bad mood, I walk away from the situation, open up the Notes on my phone, set the timer for two minutes, and start typing the things and people I’m grateful for. Two minutes later I come back to my team, or my family, or my wife, and I’m in a better mood — every single time.”

Dave Kerpen, business owner

Ameet Mallik, executive vice president and head of US Novartis Oncology, keeps a family gratitude journal that he opens up every few weeks and makes notes of what his family members are thankful for. “It’s like unpeeling an onion because the big stuff comes out first: the vacation we took or the grandparent who visited. Eventually you start getting to the small stuff. That’s when you realize what they really appreciate. Like my son will say at recess today his friend threw a pass and he got a touchdown, or my other son will say I got a cupcake from my piano teacher for doing a good job and it was amazing. That’s where the best stuff is. These little moments of joy that you find in each day.”

A practice our agent, Jim Levine, shared with us is that he begins each day by dipping into what he calls his treasure chest in his home office. The box contains pictures of his grandchildren and children. He chooses one at random and writes in his journal what he remembers of that time together. Then later, before he goes to sleep at night, he jots down three things he’s been the most grateful for that day. “This is my trip to planet earth. I try every day to be grateful for what is special, meaningful, and joyous,” he said.

Robert Emmons, a professor at the University of California, Davis, points to the results of several studies of more than two thousand people to show the value of keeping a gratitude journal. “The benefits from counting blessings are tangible, emotionally and physically,” he said. “People are 25 percent happier and more energetic if they keep gratitude journals, have 20 percent less envy and resentment, sleep 10 percent longer each night and wake up 15 percent more refreshed, exercise 33 percent more, and show a 10 percent drop in blood pressure.”

While journaling is one idea, there are other great ways we’ve seen people develop depths of gratitude in their personal lives. A few others include:

  1. Make a commitment to give undivided attention to your loved ones. One of the most powerful ways to express our gratitude with family members and close friends is to show we are serious about spending time with them. A number of busy leaders told us they have made such a commitment. When he was CEO of American Express, Ken Chenault told us, “When you’re a leader, time is precious. When I’m with my family, I really strive to devote 100 percent of my attention to the family. Since I’ve been very declarative about that, when I don’t do it, they call me on it.”
  2. Have three things for dinner. A few years ago, Kerpen was frustrated by the typical dinner conversation with his kids. You know the drill: Parent: “How was your day?” Kids: “Fine.” Parent: “What did you do?” Kids: “Nothing.” So he instituted a practice where they go around the dinner table and each person says three things: their favorite moment of the day, one person they’re grateful for who’s not at the table, and one person that they’re grateful for who’s at the table who hasn’t been thanked yet. Kerpen says his kids, “Crazy hated the idea at first, but now it’s a practice we do every day and they’re proud of it. I get a little teary-eyed. My kids went from cynical and dreading it to embracing it to the point where they share it with friends when they’re over for dinner.”
  3. Be excited to see them. It’s important to extend to your loved ones the same courtesies you extend to your officemates. So try greeting your family members with a smile-laced “Good morning.” We let people know by our body language that we are grateful to see them. Now, we admit they may not care — especially the teens who’ll think you’re a nut job — but it really will do wonders for morale in the home.
  4. Give them a break. Kids are going to mess up. They’re going to make you sick with worry. They’ll torment their siblings. They won’t clean up after the hamster after swearing they would. They’ll refuse to shower. They’ll shower too much. They’ll take your money and lie about it! What good is raging like a college basketball coach? Kids do this stuff. You did. We encourage those we coach to dig way down deep and be grateful for the lessons their family members are teaching them. And, of course, to let them know how much those loved ones mean to them.

As we lead with gratitude in our lives, we culture better relationships with our loved ones, and just as importantly, we begin to better see them and value them. What do our kids and significant other laugh about? What sparks their passions? What are they working on? Observing and expressing gratitude to those we love is a critical component of loving relationships.

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