From the September 2016 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

Mending the Gratitude Gap

Once a year we make a special occasion of expressing our gratitude, but advisors’ lives might be more rewarding if they treat every day like Thanksgiving

You’re going to find this column more personal than usual, because the subject is one I’ve been thinking about more and more.

I was reminded of it just recently, in fact, when my husband and I were on the way to the theater with some good friends of ours. Hobbling along beside one of the women, I began to grumble about my arthritis and various other aches and pains that have been plaguing me. My friend stopped and said, “Well, what doesn't hurt?”

After a moment I said, “My head and my heart.”

She smiled. I felt immediately better, and we resumed our progress toward the theater.

What doesn't hurt? Our state of mind is all about where we put our attention, isn't it?

Many of us come home from a long, tiring workday, complaining about an unhelpful colleague or an unreasonable client. Unaware that this dark cloud of discontent taints the atmosphere around us, we carry it into other aspects of our lives. To be honest, we’re not much fun to be with.

Let me tell you another story. This one may make you smile. A long time ago I was dating a guy I really liked, but something wasn't working. Finally he admitted to me that my criticisms really bothered him. That stung, because I grew up with a supercritical mother myself. After thinking about the truth of his complaint at a spirituality conference I was attending, I decided it was high time to walk my talk. So I called him from the conference, apologized, and said I would make a three-month commitment to focus only on what he did right, not on things that bothered me.

He thanked me. And when I came home that night, the moment he opened the door I could see that he looked different, like he felt safer.

I kept my promise, difficult though it sometimes was. The positive effect of my emphasis on gratitude and appreciation completely transformed our relationship. With the 29th anniversary of my marriage to this wonderful man now coming up, I truly believe that gratitude is the yeast that has enabled love and trust to grow and endure between us.

Dare to Be Grateful

There's a sizable gratitude gap in this country. According to writer and TV producer Janice Kaplan, who oversaw a 2012 national survey on gratitude for the John Templeton Foundation, many Americans feel grateful and think that gratitude is important, but fewer than 50% of them express gratitude on a regular basis.

Why is this? And what might happen if we changed our reticence and expressed appreciation more often? After Kaplan's involvement with the survey, she made a commitment of her own to spend a year living more gratefully in different aspects of her life. In 2015, she wrote “The Gratitude Diaries” (now in paperback), a book I love that became a best seller. I contacted her to get her thoughts on how expressing gratitude might alter a financial advisor's life.

“Everybody is going to feel better about themselves and be happier if they feel grateful,” Kaplan said.

Everybody? What about people who, to all appearances, don't have much to be grateful for?

“Gratitude doesn't depend on good things happening,” Kaplan said. “You can always try to reframe a difficult situation, so instead of focusing on the bad you look for something positive.” In her book she quotes the Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast, who taught gratitude for years, as saying, “It's not happiness that makes us grateful. It's gratitude that makes us happy.”

As an advisor, you may deal with unhappy clients whose portfolio has lost value, whose child has been stricken by illness, whose spouse has asked for a divorce. It's not sensitive or useful to push them toward looking for silver linings right off the bat.

However, once you have listened to them patiently and empathetically, it may be possible to gently move the conversation to what's working well in their life or relationships — any situation or development that makes them feel appreciative or grateful.

As Kaplan pointed out to me, all of us can compare ourselves to others who appear to be wealthier or more fortunate. Appreciating what we do have helps us climb out of the hole of feeling “less than.” Of course we can still vow to improve what we can control, but reminding ourselves of the good things we still have will enhance and improve our lives and teach us perspective.

Once you get used to focusing on things you appreciate, you can do it in situations of good and bad. The positive mental state you create will tend to last a lot longer than good times do.

Acknowledging One’s Limits

Does expressing gratitude for outside factors make one seem weak? After all, it's kind of macho to act as if everything is under one's own control. “If people express gratitude to others, it doesn't make them less powerful,” Kaplan insisted. “It just creates a more positive environment for everybody.”

She quoted bosses who say, “Why should I tell my employees I appreciate them? Isn't a paycheck gratitude enough?” But research shows that heartfelt appreciation is a much more effective motivator than a paycheck, Kaplan said.

This tells me that whether you’re a boss or an employee, you can improve job satisfaction by incorporating expressions of appreciation into your workday. Maybe it's a “thank you” for a helping hand on a project, a handwritten note about a job well done, or a sincere compliment on a great presentation. Think of positive things to tell people. I guarantee if you keep sharing gratitude with those you work with, the climate at work will become more and more open and enjoyable.

On another note: We often have trouble letting in the good stuff. If you’re on the receiving end of an appreciation, don't brush it off. Instead, take a deep breath, look the giver in the eye and say, “Thank you, that made my day,” or “Thank you, that makes me feel great.” The giver will in turn feel appreciated, and the whole atmosphere benefits.

How Gratitude Can Change Your State of Mind

People who know me will testify that I’m one of the world’s worst hypochondriacs. When I faced surgery for ovarian cysts several years ago, it would have been normal for me to freak out about the possibility that they might be cancerous. Instead, I felt so grateful for the life I had led so far that I sat down and wrote a letter to my son, my husband and my close friends about how much I appreciated each of them. 

They loved receiving it, and it reminded me of how seldom we let our loved ones know what they mean to us (p.s., the cysts were benign).

Recently, I learned how elated one can feel on the receiving end of gratitude. While I was in the dentist’s office having a routine cleaning, my hygienist launched into a huge appreciation of my positive spirit and energy. She actually told me I was a “blessing” in her life! She was so sincere in her appreciation that I experienced a glow for days afterward. Just think what a positive impact you can have on clients’ and colleagues’ lives by sharing gratitude more regularly, and by letting in more gratitude when you think about your own life.

Make it a Habit

“It's important to get into the gratitude habit,” Kaplan said. “Write down one thing every night that you feel grateful for. If writing feels like a chore, take a picture or use social media to write something down or take a picture of what you feel grateful for.”

I’ve practiced this habit for several years, although I write in the morning when I have more energy. Other folks find it easier to recall something worth appreciating at the end of the day, so choose whatever time of day works best for you. I write three things, which can be global (“I’m grateful for my marriage”) or specific (“I’m grateful that Michael washed the dishes last night”). I wager that the routine will make you feel more aligned and more positive.

It may make you healthier, too. “There's excellent research showing that gratitude improves health,” Kaplan said. “Gratitude lowers stress levels, lowers blood pressure, helps you sleep better. It can even reverse inflammation in the body. There's really no reason not to try it.”

 

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