Practicing Daily Gratitude

Tips and Techniques

At last year’s Leadership Challenge Forum, Dr. Samineh Shaheem gave a powerful keynote in which she suggested that we take time at the end of each day to write down “the best thing about my day.” Her prescription resonated with me because expressing gratitude is a personal project of mine. And reflecting on those things that make up the best of my days, as a member of this wonderful community, a flood of ideas came to mind. But here are a few of the things I am most grateful for:
  • The daily lessons I learn from my friend and collaborator, Barry Posner, through his application of the rigor of science to the art leadership—and his personal generosity. 
  • The humor, patience, encouragement, wisdom, and love of my spouse, Tae, who makes me feel like the luckiest man alive. 
  • The hope and optimism that exude from those who have graciously and enthusiastically participated in our work. 
  • The universality of our message and how it is shared around the world. 
  • The reminder that we can't do it alone. We can’t lead alone, and we can't learn alone. 
The research on gratitude unquestionably supports how beneficial it is to count your blessings. Robert A. Emmons, professor of psychology at University of California, Davis and the leading expert in the field, finds that people who practice gratitude, compared to those who do not, are healthier, more optimistic, more positive, and better able to cope with stress. They are also more alert, more energized, more resilient, more willing to offer support to others, more generous, and more likely to make progress toward important goals.

The other thing I love about gratitude is that counting your blessings costs absolutely nothing, and it pays daily dividends. You can’t ask for a better investment than that!

A cousin of gratitude is meaning, a topic that has been trending lately and one I have been examining. In fact, I recently was reviewing some personal correspondence with Jennifer Aaker, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, who has been doing research on meaning and, in particular, the differences between a meaningful life and a happy life. In discussing some of what she and her fellow researchers are discovering, Jennifer shared this: “In one study, we asked half of our subjects to think about creating happiness with small acts in the next 48 hours, and the other half were asked to create meaningfulness. They came back to the lab two days later and rated how happy they were. The people in the happiness condition were much less happy than those in the meaningfulness condition.” Yes, you read that right. “The people in the happiness condition were much less happy than those in the meaningfulness condition.”

So why is that? Jennifer and her colleagues learned that the difference was in how they spent their time. People in the meaningfulness condition “spent their time in ways that made them feel more connected to others—and that feeling of connectedness drove the higher levels of happiness.” So, the secret to lasting happiness is not to pursue happiness per se, but to spend time connecting with others and doing things for others.

These findings reminded me of something that Michael Steger said. Michael is a professor of psychology at Colorado State University and an expert on what makes a meaningful life. He concluded a TEDx talk he gave on the topic by asking the audience to consider changing the nature of the conversation about living a meaningful life. He asked them to consider this: “What if instead of trying to live a meaningful life, you and I tried to give a meaningful life?”

Now that’s a provocative question for all of us to consider, isn’t it? What if we were to give a meaningful life to others? What would that look like?

A good place to start is to take Dr. Sam’s recommendation to heart: set aside a few moments at the end of each day to remember the best of what the day has brought you—what has made your life meaningful. And think of all the various ways you can give meaning to others, too. This is part of the magic of what we do as a community when we help aspiring leaders be their best. As we share principles and practices of how to give others a more meaningful life, we in turn enable our leaders and constituents to have a more meaningful life.

Thank you all for the gifts you are giving to others. The New Year will bring us many more opportunities to share our gifts, and I hope that it also brings you much to be grateful for.


Jim Kouzes is the Dean’s Executive Fellow of Leadership, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University. Cited by The Wall Street Journal as one of the twelve best executive educators in the U.S., he was also winner of the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award by Trust Across America. Together with Barry Posner, he is author of The Leadership Challenge—now in its fifth edition—and over thirty other books and workbooks on leadership and leadership development, including the most recent Learning Leadership, which was selected by Strategy+Business as one of the 2016 Best Business Books of Year.

RELATED RESOURCES