The Neuroscience Behind Gratitude: Improving the Employee Experience

November 23, 2022

By Theresa Harkins-Schulz
Neuroscience has become quite a buzzword in conversations around employee experience, work culture, talent development, and many more aspects of the human experience as it relates to team culture and work.

Neuroscience is the umbrella term for all the sciences that study the structure and function of our nervous system — that is, it’s the science of how we experience life, how we think, and how we interact with others. (If you’re new to the concept, this short video by The Happiness Index (THI) explains more about neuroscience and why it matters.)

So what does neuroscience have to do with gratitude? The short answer is that it’s baked right in. One key theme in neuroscience is acknowledgment — that is, recognition from others for our actions, attributes, and accomplishments. Multiple research studies over the years have revealed the positive benefits of gratitude as it relates to the well-being, for the giver and the receiver. (We’ll delve deeper into this shortly.)

Neuroscience also helps us put a structure around employee feedback. Our recent partnership with The Happiness Index means that we now integrate THI tools within the Connects platform. Starting with Employee Voice, and soon with eight other pre-built employee feedback surveys that are based around the eight key neuroscience themes: safety, freedom, relationships, acknowledgment (there it is!), meaning, personal growth, clarity of purpose, and enablement. Employee feedback surveys backed by neuroscience give business leaders a more true and accurate picture of their workplace culture and the employee experience, making it easier to make informed decisions that drive human resources people strategy.

Now, back to gratitude. Let’s take a look at how neuroscience helps us understand why gratitude matters so much in our daily lives and our employee journey.

The neuroscience behind gratitude

The positive impact of gratitude has been illustrated and confirmed by numerous scientific studies. In one study conducted by psychologists Dr. Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis and Dr. Michael McCullough of the University of Miami, the researchers found that keeping a daily gratitude journal helped participants in a myriad of ways. They felt more positive and optimistic, were more physically active, and had a greater sense of well-being, compared to people who journaled about things that irritated them or journaled with no direction.

Many other studies support the notion that a daily gratitude practice has a positive impact on your happiness and health. Survey Monkey reports that happier, healthier employees are more engaged at work. And Gallup found that a high level of engagement increases productivity, profitability and more.Neuroscience Behind Gratitude

It’s easy to see how the chain reaction works. Gratitude makes people happy, happy people are more engaged at work, highly engaged people are more productive, and higher performance means profitability. Infusing your work culture with gratitude can have many valuable benefits, both short- and long-term, including a boost to your bottom line.

Benefits of gratitude in the workplace

Ongoing neuroscience research is still uncovering new benefits of gratitude in the workplace but here is what we know so far. Gratitude in the workplace:

Supports physical health. Positive acknowledgments and affirmations tend to put people in a better mood by reducing anxiety and depression. In turn, this allows for improved sleep so the body can better repair itself, supporting overall wellness.

Improves mental health. Expressing gratitude increases brain activity associated with moral and social cognition, reward, empathy, and value judgment. This led psychologists to conclude that acts of gratitude support a positive attitude toward others, and are, in fact, a form of stress relief. Did you know gratitude is considered a natural anti-depressant?

Fosters better work relationships. Negative feedback puts a strain on any relationship. When co-workers show feelings of gratitude to one another, they are more likely to give more, go above and beyond, and be more helpful, which builds a strong team culture. Gratitude is very important for building and maintaining relationships – it’s a signal we are valued and valuable, and connects us to one another.

Boosts engagement and productivity. When managers express gratitude to people who work for them, those employees tend to work harder, according to a study by researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Even if your team is already highly productive and engaged, prioritizing gratitude can help support that in the future.

How technology supports a culture of gratitude

Expressing gratitude at work is not just a passing fad. Gratitude and the neuroscience behind it are part of human psychology. You may find it easy to say ‘thank you’ to colleagues and coworkers you see in the office, but it may take a little more effort to express gratitude to remote workers, and to allow everyone across your organization to witness examples of gratitude in action, even if they didn’t happen to be within earshot.

Our employee engagement solution, Connects, gives employers and employees a place to give and receive thanks, and express their gratitude. Now, with the integration of THI within the platform, organizations can access a complete suite of tools that supply the data leaders need to create a workplace that fosters gratitude, improves the employee experience, increases productivity, and creates a thriving company culture.

Giving thanks for sustainable business practices

Intentionally prioritizing gratitude in your workplace — and leading by example with your behavior and the employee engagement tools you provide — can create a positive employee experience that will make your business more sustainable over time. When employee engagement goes up, retention tends to improve as well, and less turnover means less money spent on recruitment and onboarding. This means you’ll have more time and money to spend on improving your products and services. A gratitude practice isn’t a magic pill to solve a toxic work culture, but it plays an important role in supporting employees and creating an engaging work environment that brings out the best in everyone.