Gratitude is more than a ‘feel-good’ thing, it’s a scientifically-backed strategy to help see opportunities in complexity.
Gratitude is more than a feel-good idea; it’s a powerful force for developing insight into social systems (and organizations) as well as being a vehicle for positive mental health and wellbeing (pdf). We are going to look a little further at gratitude and show how it can be far more than just a means to boost mood and mental health toward helping us strategize better in complex situations.
Like many ideas with benefit, gratitude can be oversold to the point where even its biggest backers are skeptical of many claims. Gratitude is not about relentless positivity as Alfie Kohn points out, rather gratitude is about a mindset and point of focus for our energy.
Psychiatrists and researchers Randy and Lori Sansone provide the following clinical definition of the term:
Gratitude is the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself; it is a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation.
This appreciation — the attending toward something — is where gratitude brings its greatest power to understanding human systems and facilitating insight.
Mindset / Mindframe
Mindsets are orientations to seeing situations and, as psychologist Carol Dweck has pointed out in her research, can shape our experiences profoundly, especially when it comes to seeing opportunities and limitations. Her research has found that those who adopt ‘a growth mindset’ tend to achieve greater success because they cultivate agency in themselves and their teams rather than relying on perceived limitations posed by the system.
A short side note: I prefer the term mindframe simply because the language of ‘setting’ can create unnecessary barriers to change and that a frame focuses what we see while not eliminating what isn’t seen (i.e., it emphasizes certain things over seeking to eliminate others).
Gratitude is a mindframe for positive coherence.
In complex systems — those where there is a lot of things going on and many interconnections, and interactions between things — one of the biggest initial challenges is determining what to focus on. By focusing on everything, we risk losing focus on anything. Strategic action in a complex system involves finding and creating coherence for benefit. Thus, it matters what we focus on and gratitude can provide the frame that allows us to constrain the complexity enough to find meaningful interactions.
When we are grateful for something, we recognize the system properties of something — an object, a person, an experience — to generate positive sentiment and coherence. We can also use that to illustrate the shadow side of that by illustrating how something has generated negative sentiment or a lack of coherence in our lives. By recognizing what ‘works’ for us, we can also see what doesn’t.
This is what allows us to open the curtain and see where the light is.
The Window of Opportunity
How do we use gratitude to shape our perceptions?
- Recognize what you are grateful for. This can be done both generally for anything that comes to mind and it can be done for a specific thing in a designated context. General things are good contributors to mental health, but less useful for strategy (e.g., being grateful for the morning sunrise isn’t something we can influence, even if it inspires joy). Gratitude for your personal health, success on a project, or a positive interaction with a friend or co-worker are things we do have some influence over and thus we can start to see how the choices we made about the opportunities presented contributed to what’s happened. We can start to gain some appreciative inquiry into the factors that made some difference, even if small.
- Create connections backward. Consider briefly what brought the ‘thing’ about. Was it some sequence of events, a smart decision or investment of energy, luck or something else? What brought it about and who or what was involved in this ‘thing’ is both another source of gratitude and a means to assess what wise actions or opportunities were created from what was already done. This provides a form of after-action review that can help us better learn from what happened.
- Create connections forward. By noticing what has brought something beneficial to our lives, we can start to create structures to shape what goes forward. This is about amplifying the positive (useful) things and finding ways to curtail, constrain, and limit those that are creating negative (un-useful) contributions to our efforts. Gratitude helps you to articulate what things to pay attention to — it helps you identify specific items, structures, interconnections, and opportunities through us identifying what has meaning for us.
- Build strategy. What is meaningful to us is what generates value. By determining these key items, interconnections, and relationships from item-to-item and situation we can create an area of focus we can plan with.
Complex systems are difficult to deal with because of their activity and the volume of information they generate making it hard to identify what we need to pay attention to. By focusing on what we’re grateful for — and doing it within a context — we can eliminate much of the ‘noise’ in the system to get to what signals are going to provide us with the greatest value that we can build on.
There’s so much to be grateful for if we give ourselves the chance and structure our work to explore this. This idea of gratitude is part of positive psychology and can be learned and applied to strategic innovation and design. If you want help with this, reach out.