Being Shaped by Gratitude

By Michaela O’Donnell

November 18, 2023

Article, De Pree Journal, Marketplace Leaders

When I was a kid, my mom used to take me aside before big events like Christmas or a birthday and coach me, telling me that when I received a gift from someone, I needed to look them in the eye and say thank you. Until at least high school, I was pretty unskilled at this. Partly, holiday gatherings were always filled with an overwhelming amount of people (hello, a large Irish-Catholic family). But it was also because it was more natural for me to let my reactions and feelings play out internally. It was hard to call them out and share them with others on the spot—especially when everyone was staring at me.

I’ve had to learn to practice gratitude. Honestly, it hasn’t come naturally to me or been comfortable for me.

The Patterns of Practices

Practices are something that Christian theologians have spent a great deal of energy on. Though folks argue (if that isn’t the academic way, I don’t know what is?) about what exactly practices are, I’ll name a couple of patterns I notice in the literature.

  • Practices are concrete. They’re actual things we do with our time, words, and/or bodies.
  • Practices connect us to others. They connect us to God, but also to other people who have practiced the Christian faith in diverse ways throughout history. Plus, whether we’re praying, worshiping, or practicing gratitude, our practicing moves us toward other people in the present and future.
  • Practices shape who we are. Theologian and organizational leader Craig Dykstra writes, “After a time, the primary point about the practices is no longer that they are something we do. Instead, they become arenas in which something is done to us, in us, and through us that we could not ourselves do, that is beyond what we do.” [1] God shapes our character through practices. 

How exactly might practicing gratitude shape who we are? The good folks over at Harvard’s Human Flourishing Program spend their careers collecting hard data about what contributes to people’s well-being. Among the many findings and ideas they’ve published is an article by their director, Tyler J. VanderWeele that suggests three cognitive exercises (note that they don’t use the framework of practices) that can enhance well-being. Gratitude is top of the list. Citing studies that tracked people regularly engaging in gratitude (once a day in one study, once a week in another), he notes that people who did this reported having better feelings about life, fewer complaints about physical symptoms, and better sleep! [2]

Practicing gratitude helps you sleep better? Sign me up!

Practicing Gratitude at Work

So, what might this look like in our work? Especially when there’s so much in the world that’s overwhelming?

Several years ago, my at-the-time boss Mark Roberts modeled something for me that completely changed my life. About once a week, he wrote to me to tell me that he was thankful for me. I remember just how much his words meant to me, how they shaped my sense of self and what was possible. And, over time, his practice shaped mine.

Now, every day I tell someone to tell them that I am thankful for them. Usually, I tell someone in my work world—whether they’re a close colleague or someone I met once. I stop to thank them for something I see in them or the way they brought their gifts to a situation. I thank them for their friendship or insight or tough feedback. I thank them for clarity or effort or a risk they took.

Every day. A text. An email. A side note in a Zoom meeting. The rare snail mail. Sometimes I say these things out loud. Most of the time, I write them down.

Practicing gratitude in this concrete, daily way has radically reoriented my life. It teaches me to notice in myself what I am thankful for and to voice it to others in a way that encourages them. It has taught me to see people more clearly and remember that I am not alone. It has connected me to others and formed my character little by little. I am less anxious. I sleep better. I react less and respond more. I let go easier because there is so much to be grateful for. Also, I’m finally better at saying thank you when someone gives me a gift.

So, I invite you to join me—the person who’s had to work at expressing thankfulness—in practicing gratitude this week or month.

As always, I’d love to hear from you. How has gratitude shaped your faith, work, and leadership?

[1] Craig Dykstra, Growing in Life of Faith (Louisville: Westminster, 2005), 56.

[2] Tyler VanderWeele, “Activities for Flourishing: An Evidence Based Guide” in Journal of Positive Psychology and Wellbeing, 4:79-99, 2020.

Banner image by Getty Images on Unsplash.


Michaela O’Donnell

Mary and Dale Andringa Executive Director

Michaela is the Mary and Dale Andringa Executive Director Chair at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership. She is also an assistant professor of marketplace leadership and the lead professor for Fuller Seminary’s Doctor of Global Leadership, Redemptive Imagination in the Marketplace progr...

More on Michaela

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *