Actualized Leadership: Gratitude

Actualized Leadership: Gratitude

Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.

If the only prayer you said was ‘thank you,’ that would be enough.
Meister Eckhart

As we give pause to enjoy this wonderful time of the year, it’s especially important to consider the impact that gratitude has on our development, and on our journey.  Along with being one of the characteristics that Maslow found associated with self-actualizing individuals, gratitude is also the single best predictor of happiness.  The purpose of this entry is to explore gratitude and why it’s important to becoming a more Actualized Leader.

Years ago I was the research assistant for Dr. Jim Long, Chair of the Psychology Department at Appalachian State University.  Dr. Long and I designed a research project that attempted to answer a very simple yet important question: what factors predict happiness?

To answer this question, we surveyed a number of elderly people in Western North Carolina who served as our participants in the study.  We asked them a series of questions that we thought would predict happiness late in life, such as their net worth, family relationships, health, and many others.  Based on our analysis we were able to identify only one factor that had a statistically significant correlation with happiness — gratitude.  Since our initial study 20 years ago, many researchers have gone on to conclusively demonstrate that gratitude – a sense of thankfulness – is the best predictor of happiness, satisfaction, and personal well-being.  And the key insight here is that gratitude predicts happiness.  Most of us think of it inversely, and incorrectly.  We believe that having a full bank account, and a full belly, will cause us to feel happy and in turn, grateful.  But, actually it’s the exact opposite – feeling thankful and expressing gratitude for whatever you have creates feelings of happiness and a sense of well-being.

Think about that for a moment – the question isn’t about how much money you have in your bank account; rather, it’s whether or not you’re thankful for what you have.  I remember one individual from our study – a retired entrepreneur – who was a multi-millionaire and in great health.  But, most of his energy was still focused on a business deal from the 1970s that had gone wrong, the couple of hundred-thousand dollars he had lost, and how much that lost money would have been worth today.  He had plenty of money and had retired quite comfortably and in excellent health to the mountains of North Carolina, but he was resentful and bitter.  And, he was unhappy.

So, as we gather this Thanksgiving Holiday I would invite you to give some thought to where you fall on the Gratitude Scale.  Whether you are spending this time with family, friends, or alone, I would encourage you to connect with what you are thankful for in your life, and to give thanks.  Expressing gratitude is not only psychologically healthy, it will help ensure that you’re happy and content in life – both now and throughout your life.



  1. Brian Ralph

    Great post. Love when something so amorphous like gratitude can be measured 🙂

  2. Laura Schoofs

    Awesome blog, Will 🙂 Very much enjoyed reading it: short but exactly to the point!! Happy Thanksgiving 🙂

    • Dr Will Sparks

      Thank you Laura! I hope you’re feeling better and look forward to seeing you in 2016.

  3. Steve Macadam

    Will, I really appreciate your generous sharing of valuable leadership insights. Happy thanksgiving, Steve

    • Dr Will Sparks

      Thank you – Happy Thanksgiving.

  4. Onyeka Nchege

    Great blog post. Definitely resonates. Nothing like gratitude to really set the pace for happiness. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Elise Steuer Fuller

    Great piece, Will. It definitely resonates with me. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on remaining in gratitude dispite difficult or even traumatic life experiences.

    • Dr Will Sparks

      Elise, one of the best resources I know for this question is Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”‘ who essentially says when we find meaning in our suffering, it ceases to be suffering.

  6. Paul Cameron

    see below article.. it is factual demonstration that gratitude goes beyond just a feeling.

    Todd Davidson/Illustration Works/Corbis
    Todd Davidson/Illustration Works/Corbis
    As we launch into Thanksgiving week, consider this: Research shows that feeling grateful doesn’t just make you feel good. It also helps — literally helps — the heart.

    A positive mental attitude is good for your heart. It fends off depression, stress and anxiety, which can increase the risk of heart disease, says Paul Mills, a professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine. Mills specializes in disease processes and has been researching behavior and heart health for decades. He wondered if the very specific feeling of gratitude made a difference, too.

    So he did a study. He recruited 186 men and women, average age 66, who already had some damage to their heart, either through years of sustained high blood pressure or as a result of heart attack or even an infection of the heart itself. They each filled out a standard questionnaire to rate how grateful they felt for the people, places or things in their lives.

    It turned out the more grateful people were, the healthier they were. “They had less depressed mood, slept better and had more energy,” says Mills.

    And when Mills did blood tests to measure inflammation, the body’s natural response to injury, or plaque buildup in the arteries, he found lower levels among those who were grateful — an indication of better heart health.

    So Mills did a small follow-up study to look even more closely at gratitude. He tested 40 patients for heart disease and noted biological indications of heart disease such as inflammation and heart rhythm. Then he asked half of the patients to keep a journal most days of the week, and write about two or three things they were grateful for. People wrote about everything, from appreciating children to being grateful for spouses, friends, pets, travel, jobs and even good food.

    After two months, Mills retested all 40 patients and found health benefits for the patients who wrote in their journals. Inflammation levels were reduced, and heart rhythm improved. And when he compared their heart disease risk before and after journal writing, there was a decrease in risk after two months of writing in their journals. Those results have been submitted to a journal, but aren’t yet published.

    Mills isn’t sure exactly how gratitude helps the heart, but he thinks it’s because it reduces stress, a huge factor in heart disease.

    “Taking the time to focus on what you are thankful for,” he says, “letting that sense of gratitude wash over you — this helps us manage and cope.”

    And helps keep our hearts healthy.


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