As an FBI agent, I was surrounded by people who had a strong sense of right and wrong. Research shows that emotions are strongly connected to our morality—the ability to tell right from wrong. Since strong emotions were closely connected to my fellow agents’ morals, it allowed them to move into adverse and dangerous situations to protect the well-being of others.
Gratitude and indignation are both moral emotions. Gratitude is a positive emotion that encourages reciprocal altruism, well-being, and appreciation. Indignation, on the other hand, is a negative emotion that is closely related to anger and revenge—it motivates individuals to punish cheaters.
Mental toughness strengthens our ability to distinguish positive emotions from negative ones. We can use this awareness to strengthen positive emotions like gratitude and control negative ones like anger.
Understanding our emotions is the key if we want to control them. Mentally tough people learn how to connect with emotions that attract more of the things that represent our moral standards. In turn, we live and do what is right.
As leaders, it’s important to find ways to make gratitude a stronger emotion. We can use mental toughness to strengthen our gratitude emotion. When we do, we control the negative emotions that impact the way we treat not only ourselves, but those around us.
Here are 5 ways we can make gratitude a stronger emotion:
1. Make It Intentional
Intentional behavior is the ability to move ahead with a thoughtful and deliberate goal in mind. To do so, we need to seek out and identify specific acts for which we can, and should, be grateful. Gratitude only works when you’re grateful for something real.
We perceive an act as more worthy of gratitude when:
- it cost someone (either time or effort)
- we perceive it to be of value
- it is not obligatory or habitual in nature
- the result produces relief or happiness
How To Make It Work For You: So, how do you manage the bad things that show up in life? Even bad, or negative events, can have positive consequences. Choose an experience from your life that was either unpleasant or unwanted. Focus on the positive aspects or consequences of this difficult experience. As the result, is there anything for which you now feel thankful or grateful? Has this experience made you a better person? Have you grown? Did the experience help you appreciate the truly important things in life? Can you be thankful for the beneficial consequences as a result?
2. Keep Focused
Most FBI agents and law enforcement officers enter their career to arrest criminals who exploit the needs and weaknesses of others. Over time, however, their idealism is threatened because life is rarely lived in absolutes. The black and white of justice frequently morphs into shades of gray. Good is often found in the midst of the bad, and bad sometimes results from good intentions.
We become mentally tough when we learn to live with the paradox of contradiction and not run from the mystery of life. It’s especially important to remain grateful when life takes a down turn.
- Seek out events and people that represent the things that embody your moral standards
- Express gratitude when you see them
- Let go of your need for the “right” way to be “your” way
- Clarify what you know to be the truth in your heart, get to know it better
- Remember that truth is it’s own best argument
How To Make It Work For You: To keep focused, think about what the absence of a positive influence in your life would mean to you. What would life be like if you hadn’t met your spouse or partner? Or if you hadn’t taken that job transfer? Or if you hadn’t moved to your neighborhood? Take something positive away from your life and you’re forced to focus on what brings you happiness and gratitude. Something that, perhaps, you had started to take for granted.
3. Change The Way Your Brain Works
A recent study brings us closer to understanding how gratitude can affect the way our brain works. Participants were asked to write simple, short notes of gratitude to other people for three weeks. An MRI scan measured the brain of the participants and found they showed greater neural sensitivity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain area associated with learning, judgment, and decision making.
How To Make It Work For You: When you express gratitude, it has lasting effects on the brain. The study suggests that even months after a simple, short gratitude writing task, people’s brains were still wired to feel extra thankful. The implication is that gratitude has a self-perpetuating nature: The more you practice it, the more attuned you are to it.
4. Ditch The Ego
Narcissists believe their presence entitles them to special rights and privileges. They often make selfish demands of others. People with large egos tend to be ungrateful. Instead, they believe they deserve the favors and gifts that others give to them.
Deepak Chopra makes these points about ego and gratitude:
- Ego can get stuck on being right or wrong
- Real gratitude isn’t passing and temporary
- Gratitude takes openness and the willingness to set your ego aside
- No one is grateful for things they think they deserve.
- Gratitude is unearned, like grace
- When it is deeply felt, gratitude applies to everything, not simply to good things you hope come your way
It’s impossible to give full attention to both ego and gratitude at the same time. When you appreciate something or someone else, your ego must move out of the way.
How To Make It Work For You: We strengthen our gratitude emotion when we seek out and find people and circumstances for which we can be grateful. We also need to focus on the priority of being grateful, especially in tough times. And finally, we need to demand the ego to be put it in its proper place.
5. Use Gratitude To Build Resilience
Since 2001, the suicide rate among U.S. soldiers is at an all-time high. The number of soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress is also very high. In 2008, Martin Seligman was invited to have lunch at the Pentagon with General George Casey. Casey advised that he wanted a fighting force that could bounce back and cope with the trauma of persistent warfare. Seligman and other researchers implemented the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) program, a preventive program that seeks to enhance resilience among members of the Army community. The program aims at prevention rather than treatment of PTSD.
To build resilience among U.S. soldiers, the CSF brought in elements of positive psychology, and discovered that gratitude is an essential component of positive thinking.
Because here is the thing: it is impossible to grateful and negative at the same time.
Gratitude is the most powerful emotion in the world. Why? It allows you to love not only yourself, but others as well.
How To Make It Work For You: Here is what you can expect if you practice gratitude:
- A renewed appreciation for life
- New possibilities for yourself
- More personal strength
- Improve relationships
- Spiritually more satisfied
© 2018 LaRae Quy. All rights reserved.
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Author of “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths”
Thanks for this. Will be sharing both on and offline. Sometimes my son can get caught up in a bad day and the bad actions of others. By intentionally spending time at the end of the day focusing on gratitude through all the muck has made a difference. It’s easy to get in the habit of seeing the dark and ignoring the light. Thanks for giving us the tools to strengthen our gratitude muscles even in bad situations.
Wonderful insights here LaRae! I am a believer in gratitude because it helps us develop more meaningful relationships by allowing us to see the kindness of others. I have seen leaders so fixated on being the best or making sure their suggestions are the ones used in the solution that they overlook the helpful input from others. As you mention, when we are grateful we don’t have to always be right.
I need to work on this one more. I have a gratitude journal but I haven’t been good at writing in it regularly. I also struggle to get to 5 items to put on it, which is my goal whenever I do it, and it feels more like a chore than something that could make me feel better. It’s probably why #5 fits me best, because I need more of that resilience, especially these days, to keep me going and not giving up on my ultimate dreams and goals.