06/13/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Great or Grateful?

Has this Great Recession created a great depression in the collective psyche of the modern world? The Brits recently reported that in 2008 -- in the early stages of the recession -- their suicide rate statistically rose for the first time in two decades and there's some growing evidence of that in the U.S. too. Many of us have woken to the grim news that a friend or colleague has chosen to take their life. In the past two years, I've experienced this news five different times -- from my insurance agent of 15 years to a business school classmate who had a hedge fund -- and each time it reminds me of that Henry David Thoreau quote: "The cost of something is measured by how much life you have to give for it." In some cases, the cost of our jobs is killing us. Literally.

There's no pie chart that defines the primary influences for why people commit suicide (because it's obviously hard to get perfectly accurate data when the subjects are no longer living). But, there's growing research that shows that a combination of financial woes and a sense that people felt professionally or emotionally worthless are more apparent as causes during this recession. Our aspirational treadmill in America is set on a pretty fast speed and with a stubborn 10% unemployment rate, it's not surprising that many of us feel like we're falling behind Donald Trump and the role models of personal manifest destiny we see paraded on TV.

When I was young, my greatest goal was to be great. Making my mark on the world was sort of my way of knowing I existed. I succeed, therefore I am. Even that master of mid-20th century humanistic psychology, Abraham Maslow, said that one of the favorite questions he'd ask his students at the start of the term was, "Which of you believe you will attain greatness?" He was always surprised how few people raised their hand, but at the end of the term when he asked the question again, the majority of his class would raise their hand.

Maybe it's time for us to start asking a different question. As David Brooks pointed out in the New York Times last month ("The Sandra Bullock Trade"), the relationship between happiness and income is complicated, and, after some modest income level, tenuous. Maybe the question we should be asking is, "Are we happy?" And the question behind that question might be, "Are we grateful?"

There's a growing body of research that shows it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but it's gratefulness that makes us happy. Doing just a few hours of writing in a gratitude journal over three weeks can create a positive effect that last six months or more. And, psychologist Robert Emmons has shown that practicing proactive gratitude can increase happiness levels by 25%.

During the last downturn, one of the leadership practices we put in place at my company to ritualize gratitude and recognition was ten minutes at the end of our Executive Committee meetings when each of the 15 top leaders could mention some employee in the company who'd been caught doing something right. As we shared these stories during that recession, it reminded us that positive things were happening and then someone else at the table would volunteer to go say thanks to that employee. Over the past eight years, as the CEO, I've probably given an in-depth personal thank you to more than 100 individual employees based upon this weekly management exercise and I know that I got just as much out of offering the gratitude as the employee did in receiving the recognition.

When I was growing up, I thought gratitude was a form of passivity. By being grateful, I was sort of acknowledging some kind of lack of ambition or a low standard. What I've come to realize is that gratitude is a contagious fuel. Like a match that can light a thousand candles, gratitude has a multiplying effect and it doesn't cost a thing to exercise.

Life and business is all about where you pay your attention. Maybe it's time to shift our attention from lionizing business books like Good to Great to teaching people it's good to be grateful. Ironically, being grateful to those around you will likely help make you great.

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