For leaders, gratitude is a catalyst for recognition. It makes us constantly look for the good in people and feeds our desire to share our gratitude for a job well done. It is a light we carry with us that people are drawn to because they feel good about themselves when they are around us. 

The reality, however, is that we are biologically hardwired to see the negative in people and circumstances. Therefore, gratitude is a state and a habit that must be consciously cultivated. It’s a critical component of any leadership skills training.

In his book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, neuropsychologist Rick Hanson explains how to help our ancestors survive in harsh conditions, the brain evolved to look for bad news, overreact to it and fast-track negative experiences into emotional memory. 

In effect, our brain is like Velcro for the negative but Teflon on for the positive. As our ancestors evolved, avoiding ‘sticks’ was more important than getting ‘carrots’, which means we learned to: 

  • scan for bad news 
  • over-focus on it, losing sight of the whole 
  • overreact to it 
  • install it rapidly in implicit memory 
  • sensitise the brain to the negative 
  • create vicious cycles. 

In effect, the brain is good at learning from bad experiences but bad at learning from good ones, even though learning from good experiences is the primary way to build up psychological resources. 

Rick teaches a concept called “positive neuroplasticity,” centred on our ability to rewire our brains to focus more on positives than negatives to increase our awareness of and capacity for gratitude. 

Here’s a mindfulness exercise you can use in your leadership skills training to reverse this: 

  1. Have a beneficial experience. The first step is to become more aware of things for which we’re grateful. For example, you could be driving in your car on a normal day and take particular notice of beautiful clouds in the sky. Or perhaps your child wrote you a note. Whatever it is, move it into the foreground of your conscious awareness and focus exclusively on it. 
  2. Enrich the experience. This means sustaining the experience and really feeling it in your body. Let it wash over you. Revel in the positive feelings. Consciously and actively intensify the feelings by opening up your mind to the experience. Engage with multiple aspects of the experience, including perception and emotion. 
  3. Absorb the experience. Receive it by imagining and/or sensing it really sinking in. The key to rewiring our brains, Rick says, is to hold on to our feelings of gratitude for positive experiences for a minimum of 20 seconds. While enriching makes experiences more powerful, absorbing makes memory systems more receptive by priming and sensitising them. Without turning passing mental states into an enduring neural structure there is no learning and no functional change in the brain. 

The relevance leadership skills training is that it’s not natural for us to notice the positive things people do and to be encouraging. We’re working against our biological programming. 

By expressing appreciation, we are supporting not only our people but also our own development. We’re reorienting and rewiring our mind to focus on the positive. Essentially, conscious gratitude reprograms our mind for greater happiness. Not only is it vital for leadership skills training, it’s vital for a healthy, happy life. 

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