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How To Feel Gratitude At Work When Everything Feels Bleak

Even if you can't be grateful for your work situation, you can still thank yourself

Over the holidays, people are urged to be grateful for all the goodness in their personal and professional lives.

But in the year of a coronavirus pandemic in which 3.6 million Americans have been unemployed for six months and millions more are living with fear and uncertainty about their own futures, it can be difficult to find any silver lining in your career.

Our brains have a built-in negativity bias that overlooks good memories. That’s why when life is particularly hard, it’s especially important to find and create moments of positive connection to feel grateful for. It helps us not to forget the good in our lives.

By making time in your day for gratitude, you can help retrain your brain to focus on the positive. Here are ways to do it in your work life:

1. Give thanks to the people who have helped your career survive or thrive in 2020.

If you want a model of a person who knows how to be grateful, look to Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian minister who taught children and adults how to identify and regulate their emotions on his TV show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

In a commencement address at Middlebury College in 2001, Rogers gave a master class on giving thanks. He asked the audience to take a minute of silence to think of the extra special people who “cared about you beyond measure and have encouraged you to be true to the best within you.” After the minute of reflection passed, Rogers told the crowd, “Whomever you’ve been thinking about, just imagine how grateful they must be that you remember them when you think of your own becoming.”

To go a step further than being grateful in your head, express it out loud. Send a thank-you note to the person who coached you through a job interview, took the time to connect you to someone who could help your career, recommended you for a gig or consoled you after a job loss.

A little thanks can go a long way toward cultivating a more considerate workplace, as well. People who were thanked for giving feedback on a job application were more than twice as likely to want to help a different candidate work through their cover letter than people who got no thanks at all for their help, according to a series of studies by management professors Francesca Gino and Adam Grant.

If you think too much time has passed to express thanks to that person, think again, said feminist career coach Cynthia Pong, author of “Don’t Stay in Your Lane: The Career Change Guide for Women of Color.”

“It makes it even more meaningful that time has passed,” Pong said. “Think about it from the recipient’s end: ‘Wow, this person still, number one, remembers that this happened and has still thought of me after all this time away.’ It could totally make that person’s day to receive that.”

A pro tip for what to say and what NOT to say in your thank-you note:

Don’t just mention how much you have personally benefited; take the time to note how integral this person was to your success. Researchers at the University of North Carolina have found that “other-praising” gratitude — that is, the type that validates the actions of the giver ― creates feelings of responsiveness and positive emotion, while gratitude that focuses on self-benefit does not.

Just don’t pair your thank-you with a request for a favor, especially if it’s your first time reaching out in a while. “It will come off feeling gross and transactional if you then are like, in the same note, ‘By the way, can you do X, Y and Z for me?’” Pong said.

2. Regularly record positive moments.

Beyond saying thank you to others more often, you can make gratitude a consistent practice by taking the time out of your day to memorialize these positive moments somewhere, so you don’t forget. For some people, mornings before work are the best time to set this tone for your day, while others may find it’s best after work or once a week.

As for how, Pong suggests doing what comes naturally to you. If you are a person who likes lists or journals, then write it down where you do those things. “The benefit of that is that handwriting makes us process things on a deeper level,” she said. “And two, you’re creating this evidence of all the things you have to be grateful for.”

And if you’re not a person who likes to write in a journal, try jotting down these moments in your phone notes, or by creating a voice memo after they happen. If you respond well to accountability, you can always make it more public with a blog post, Pong said.

3. When you can’t give thanks to any co-workers, give thanks to yourself.

You don’t have to force gratitude for any terrible, toxic co-workers and bosses who have contributed to your stress this year. Gratitude does not mean lowering your standards for how you should be treated with mutual respect at work.

If there is nothing to be grateful for in your work situation, look inward. Gratitude can also be a practice of noticing the goodness and growth within yourself, Pong said.

For example, if you dealt with a conflict with a co-worker this year, that’s an opportunity to notice how you have progressed, even if the people around you are still acting the same. “Simply notice, ‘Oh, this is how I responded. That demonstrates growth from how I responded in the past and I’m grateful for my ability to learn and grow and to evolve,’” Pong said.

In this way, you can learn to appreciate your actions at work that are a testament to your growth, even if they did not produce the outcome you wanted.

And if you don’t have any co-workers, or you have lost your job, or you’re having trouble finding anything positive in your career at this moment, go back to the foundations of living to be grateful for. You can tell yourself, “‘I woke up to see another day.’ Whether the day looks bleak or the day looks super positive, the fact is you woke up and you’re now thinking those thoughts. That wasn’t promised, that wasn’t guaranteed, so that is something to still be grateful for,” Pong said.


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