This Is Fine...No, Seriously
Assistant Professor Hooria Jazaieri explains why it’s important to be thankful, especially in a world that sometimes feels like it’s on fire.
Scattered throughout the halls of Facebook’s corporate headquarters in Menlo Park are vending machines stocked with all sorts of office supplies, from standard keyboards to high-end Sennheiser headphones.
There aren’t any prices listed in the machine because each item—regardless of what it is—is free to employees. You swipe your employee ID card, the item is dispensed, and no one is charged. The system was put in place to build trust and for the most part it’s worked. Employees can take what they need to do their job without being nickel and dimed over every transaction.
A few years ago, Facebook added an item to the machines with another goal in mind: gratitude. Next to the laptop chargers and Energizer batteries were free “thank you” cards, so when an employee felt thankful for the actions of a fellow co-worker they could let them know.
Companies like Facebook know employees are starved for appreciation and that there are interpersonal and health benefits of gratitude, but they're still trying to figure out how to promote a culture of gratitude in an organization. Giving a “thank you” card comes at little cost to the giver. Remember, they’re free! But Facebook found the act of taking the time to get a card and acknowledge a fellow employee on its own made a difference, not just for the receiver but the giver, too.
In a year like 2020 that has been defined by disaster—from a crippling global pandemic to violent racism, layoffs, wildfires, and a toxic political climate—it can be hard not to feel demoralized. In fact, 2020 has been so bleak that seven years after it was originally drawn, the famously doomed dog in cartoonist KC Green’s “This is Fine” comic strip emerged as a mascot of sorts for 2020. The image has become such a cultural touchstone that Green has a popular line of merchandise, and even a Funko Pop forthcoming.
But Hooria Jazaieri says the joy inherent to being thankful is exactly what so many of us need in a year like this. Jazaieri, an assistant professor in the Leavey School of Business, researches individual reputation and emotion in the workplace, specifically compassion, joy, and gratitude. She is currently working on a study with Mandy O’Neill at George Mason University’s School of Business that asked thousands of people from 144 countries around the world to keep “gratitude journals,” in order to figure out who is thankful for what and why.
We spoke to Jazaieri about their project and how practicing gratitude can salvage our hearts and minds from a brutal 2020.
What are the benefits of identifying and expressing gratitude?
Simply put, people feel happier when they are thankful or when someone is thankful for them. They feel more connected to that person. It’s not just in that moment either. Studies show when we check in 24 hours or a week later, the person still reports having these feelings.
I also think gratitude helps us see the world more clearly. Oftentimes, gratitude gets confused with being overly positive or optimistic. That’s a myth. Gratitude is really a way of filtering your attention to pick up everything that's going on, not just the bad stuff.
What about a year like 2020 when, really, so many things seemed so hopeless? How does gratitude work?
I teach a lot of undergrads who are super focused on what’s not going well right now. Whether it's that we can't meet in person or that study abroad was cancelled or the high unemployment rates or the hundreds of thousands of people dying right now.
All of those things are real. And, what is also true is there are tiny opportunities for gratitude happening in parallel with the devastation, distress, and suffering. So you can think about gratitude as this opportunity to broaden your awareness and see the world in a different way. And, in my opinion, a little more accurately.
Recently, I worked on a study that asked thousands of people to keep a gratitude journal for 21 days. The first thing we learned was only about eight percent of people wrote about their job. Considering how much time we spend at work and the fact that gratitude is important, that’s quite surprising.
But when you look at the eight percent who did write about work, we learned most of the time gratitude came in the context of distress. Something was going poorly in the employee’s personal or professional life and someone stepped in and helped. We saw people working in ICUs for example, under incredibly stressful life-or-death situations, finding gratitude. So sometimes when times are at their worst, it’s adaptive to find things to be thankful for, if you choose to look for it.
What advice would you give someone who’s having trouble finding things to be thankful for in their life?
When people think about gratitude, they often think it has to be this big, monumental event. Gratitude doesn’t need to be reserved for saving someone's life or getting them a new job. Whether it’s having instant running water at your fingertips or having a safe neighborhood to walk around at night, there are mini miracles all around us. I can pause and feel gratitude to the person who designed my water bottle or the person who picked the tomato for my salad. I may never know their names, but my life—and more specifically my lunch—wouldn’t be possible without them.
For some people, it can sound kind of cheesy, but we fall into this trap of believing we're responsible for the things we have in life. But actually countless others are responsible for everything. Even attending a meeting on Zoom, it took thousands of people to make that possible.
And when you think about how our actions support and are supported by others, it influences our behavior and that’s when it can be really powerful. Take an issue like global warming or wearing a mask. Considering your role starts a cycle of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. If you generate these thoughts, you’re going to feel more grateful and choose different behaviors. So we talk on the surface about gratitude, but it is a mindset shift that has the potential to solve societal problems.
How can understanding gratitude be powerful in the workplace?
The title of the paper we’re working on is called “Thanks in Advance: Expressions of Gratitude to Employees During Times of Distress.” One portion of the research dealt with the different ways you could deliver distressing news to an employee. In this instance, we assigned a project that was not only very difficult, but we didn’t give the worker sufficient time to even have a shot at completing it. When we assigned the project, we tested three approaches: control/neutral, hope, and gratitude.
For hope, before the task started we’d say, “I hope you enjoy participating in this study! You have lots of great surveys and questionnaires to choose from and I'm hopeful that my study will be a success. I feel hopeful about workers like you!” For gratitude, we’d say, “Thank you for choosing to participate in this study! While filling out surveys and questionnaires may not seem like a big deal, if it wasn't for workers like yourself, I wouldn't be able to do my research. I feel gratitude to workers like you!”
While actual performance on the impossible task did not differ between conditions, the people who got the hope condition had a more negative response afterwards: “It was hard. I got frustrated and honestly quit trying after spending a lot of time and still getting a few wrong.” But when we showed gratitude before the distressing task, the response was a bit more positive and participants reported greater social worth: “The study was very challenging but fun at the same time. I know with experience, I can get better.” In some tasks we even found that those in the gratitude condition were more persistent with the task. When we offered them the option to switch projects, they were more likely to stick with the original task.
Where do you see organizations failing with gratitude?
They’re not consistent. With Thanksgiving, November is a month people have gratitude top of mind. But if you want gratitude to be the way you choose to see the world, it's not seasonal, it’s a 12-months-a-year effort. I view gratitude as a skill you have to train every day, not just in November.