Posted by: garyskidmore | August 14, 2014

How Old Would You Be…?

Gary at 60 with Much to Love

Lots to Love at 60

How old would you be, if you didn’t know how old you are?

I’d be about 47… old enough to have had the experience of my career, but young and energetic enough to be planning a substantial second career. 47, that sounds good.

However, last week I turned 60. I’m now in age limbo.

Some, (millennials) consider me too old to “get it.” (For the record, I do not “feel” old and I DO get it.) Some, (boomers) believe that 60 is the new launching pad age…that time after you’ve had a long, successful career and you’re ready to start something new.

I do know that 60 is much too young to retire…in fact I don’t believe in retirement at all. However, turning 60 has been a time of intense thinking and reflection, including thinking about what I have learned after being in the workforce for 45 years about work life (and some personal life lessons, too).

So from score/groundskeeper for Western Little League to president and COO for a global marketing services company, here are Skidmore’s five things that matter most in business.

1. Everyone needs a true mentor. I will be forever grateful to Bill New. He took me under his wing when he purchased Sweet Publishing and was my advisor and partner in Select Marketing. He gave me advice and listened to me. He told me stuff I needed to hear to be a better business leader and person (if you think I’m intense now, you should have seen me at 26!). Everyone needs a “Bill New” in his or her life.

2. No matter what you do, decide you will be the best. I have said many times, that I fully intended to play second base for the Yankees, but I couldn’t hit and was slow. I sure didn’t intend to be in the direct marketing business, but I was. So, like my dad, Skinny Skidmore, taught me, if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right and being the best.

3. Be intentional about hiring and working with people smarter than you. This was easy for me ;-). Smart people raise the performance of everyone around them, including the supervisor, department head, vice president or CEO. And when you find them, hang onto them. As a leader, having really smart people on your team can make you look BRILLIANT!

4. Have at least 3 bad days in a row before you quit a job. Every job has bad stuff…bad bosses, bad co-workers, some lousy and boring tasks…you can make your own list. And the grass is never as green on the other side as it looks. So when you’re ready to throw in the towel, wait. If it stays bad, really bad, for 3 days in a row (this doesn’t happen very often), then think about doing something different. Staying in the same job for a while has big benefits.

5. Give back. The workplace is populated with people who need a friend, a listening ear, a littler career advice, or just a hug. Don’t make it all about you. When you go to work tomorrow, in addition to doing the best possible job, ask yourself, “how can I make a difference in someone’s life?” Knowing that you’ve done that, feels better (and is better) than a raise or promotion.

And here’s one more thought…maybe the most important learning from my first 45 years of working. Always…always act with integrity and be honest. In other words, do the right thing. You’ll always get a good night’s sleep.


“You have to change your ID, because they made a mistake. You are not 60. You are just a 40 year old with 20 years of experience.” — Unknown

Posted by: garyskidmore | July 29, 2014

How Satisfied Are Your Customers? How Satisfied Are You?

From ATX - Customer Service Issues - July 14

Perhaps the most logical fundamental idea of business is this: if your customers are satisfied with your product and service then they will continue to buy and buy more. Even if you are a product-centric company, your employees are essentially the way satisfaction is created. (And, if you take good care of your employees they are much more likely to take good care of your customers – but that’s another discussion.)

So why do so many companies seem to not get this?

The leading indicator of U.S. consumer satisfaction is ACSI (American Customer Satisfaction Index) and in Q2 of this year the drop in satisfaction was one of the largest in the 20-year history of the index. And the result of that drop was a material weakening of consumer’s willingness to spend.


Last week I experienced extreme dissatisfaction with Time Warner Cable. I work from home a lot, so when Time Warner offered me new ultra fast internet (up to 100 Mbps) I jumped on it. The result has been highly unreliable and generally slower speeds.

( )

I talked to at least 10 tech support reps, each of which had a different approach to solving my problem. (It’s a bad sign when you know by heart both the tech support phone number and the irritating self-service menu tree.) One in home service call led to new cable from the street to the house – the problems continued.

Finally after rebooting the modem every morning and increasingly angry conversations with another four tech support reps on Wednesday morning, I was “allowed” to talk to a supervisor who could not fix the problem, but arranged for another home service call. This time a knowledgeable and honest technician arrived on time and fixed the problem. He told me, “you and everyone else is having big problems with this upgrade.”

Why hadn’t anyone else told me that? And why did I have to threaten to end a 30+ year relationship to get my problem solved?

This does not make sense.

Why don’t more companies do what Ritz-Carlton does? Every one of the 38,000 employees is permitted to spend up to $2,000 to make any single guest satisfied – without having to get approval. That’s front desk staff, house keepers, reservation agents and waiters….EVERYONE.

( ).

What do you think? Why is satisfaction declining and most companies are not responding to empower their employees to solve the problems?

I don’t get it.


Customers don’t expect you to be perfect. They do expect you to fix things when they go wrong.”  – Donald Porter, V.P. British Airways

“Customer service is not a department, it’s everyone’s job.” – Anonymous

“Customer service is just a day in, day out ongoing, never ending, unremitting, persevering, compassionate, type of activity.” – Leon Gorman, CEO L.L.Bean

From ATX - Student Optimism - June 14 - 2

I’ve had a busy spring involved in higher education – and seriously, I can’t recall a time when I’ve encountered a maturity, level of enthusiasm, and skills-matching for launching and thriving in careers in marketing.

This month, I joined the Board of Trustees of Marketing EDGE (formerly the Direct Marketing Educational Foundation), a New York-based nonprofit education organization. Marketing EDGE programs literally touch thousands of students, hundreds of academicians and hundreds of marketing organizations (commercial and nonprofit, agencies, ad tech companies and brands) each year. Its many programs and scholarships serve to build a bridge between a better marketing education in colleges and universities (undergraduate and graduate) and a better learning and early-career experience inside some of the best marketing firms in the business. I love the work it is doing.

This short video (2 and a half minutes) captures the excitement that Marketing EDGE has to offer:

One such program is I-MAX [Interactive Marketing Analytics eXperience] where a group of very mature, knowledgeable, capable and encouraging marketing students get real-life case work and training inside the marketing analytics practice of a sponsoring data-driven marketing company.

Another event I attended this month was Marketing EDGE’s “Rising Stars” event in New York. Six under-40 marketing leaders who are not only creating innovation in the practice of marketing, but also are giving back through mentoring, teaching and encouraging the professional development of all their colleagues – might I say, younger and older. These individuals are making a difference in companies old and new, from startups to Fortune 500s.

In May, I judged the University of Texas MBA New Venture Creation competition, which involved primarily experienced business people who had returned to get their MBA degree. Innovation again, and very much on the cutting edge, among them a consumer packaged goods company that actually has been launched, a professional services company and a financial services company. In all three, technology is enabling whole new ways of creating, engaging and growing customers – creating value each and every step.

Call me Professor, adjunct that is: I also taught Direct Marketing every Monday night this past semester at Abilene Christian University, to 35 about-to-graduate seniors. There were no text books. There was actual, real-time information on the best digital marketing brands (some offline integration, too) that enabled knowledge transfer (and knowledge discovery, I learned a few things as well) through case studies. At the end of the semester, six class teams presented digital marketing ideas – and they pushed the innovation envelope with some ideas I’d love to test.

Here’s my take-aways from six months of involvement with marketing higher ed:

• Today’s university students and youngest professionals (Millennials) are smart and want to learn cutting-edge ideas – not text book stuff. They learn by doing.
• They want, and seek out, jobs that interest them – not those that pay the most.
• They want real-world internship experiences where they do real work – not make photocopies and order lunches.
• They expect to make a difference – and they seek out employers who do the same.
• And they understand the importance of analytics – they have taken lots of math and science to prepare and they know this is a difference maker.

I am bullish on what I’m hearing and seeing in our next generation of marketing professionals. I’m hopeful that more companies are in a position to prepare to hire these individuals because, with the right culture and openness, they will make a difference, and the practice of marketing will improve because of it.

Post your open internships, entry-level and early-experience jobs to:

Helpful Links:

• Marketing EDGE: | Twitter @mktgEDGEorg

• Abilene Christian University | Marketing Degree Program:

• University of Texas MBA Program:


“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.”

― Albert Einstein

From ATX - Student Optimism - June 14 - 1


The pace of change in marketing technology during the past 10 years is astonishing. It used to be (and probably still is, to some extent) that the big challenge in enterprises was getting the sales team and the marketing team to play nice together.

Today, an even bigger challenge is marketing and technology alignment – having a unified plan for managing the huge growth, variety and speed of data to recognize and serve customers at every touch-point in real time. In step with this alignment are having in place data management platforms and analytics capabilities to manage the high volume of prospects. Daunting indeed.

Welcome to the Marketing Cloud: Where the ether of digital technology enables data flows and information analysis for the potential of the smartest marketing we’ve ever known. Except one thing: how do we master it all?

As a president of a global marketing company, I was concerned (and still am) about silos of data – downloaded from a centralized customer or prospect database. Where one part of the enterprise, or another, worked on its various objectives independent of each other – creating mini-data stores that did a wonderful job for a department’s immediate business needs, but created incongruent views of the customer (and prospect) overall. From the customer’s experience, this delivered an inconsistent, disjointed brand experience.

Those nasty data silos “down” in the organization now have a crazier cousin – how do I manage “up” to the Marketing Cloud?

Right now, the bigger your brand, the more technology, data and analytics providers there are jumping all over your customer and prospect interactions, appending information, slicing and dicing, and serving up differentiated content in the persistent pursuit of greater relevance. It’s really a fascinating development – and one that has to happen to serve consumers the way they expect and demand, but yet is there really a central force – a CMO-CIO partnership – driving it all in sync?

Let’s not kid ourselves – no one brand really fully controls “its” marketing cloud, and neither does any single Big Tech or Big Digital company, no matter how many startups and acquisitions they undertake to increase share. Web site analytics, customer data management, tag management, prospect and customer data segmentation and appending, ad networks and servers, social platforms and social sharing, customer reviews, data quality management – a plethora of tech vendors large and small have access to a brand’s customer data, and potentially that of prospects, too.

As software-as-a-service off the cloud booms, it is hard to conceive that all this enterprise data is safe and secure. I’m not talking about security in the sense of criminal networks and foreign government espionage (though these threats are very real, too), but that of “commercial evaporation and precipitation of data” – leakage – as information is de-identified, re-identified, aggregated, analyzed and served up to meet the needs of consumers in each and every channel.

In a brilliant white paper (download link, registration required), Ghostery Enterprises reports that one leading retailer conducted an audit of its data vendors in the Marketing Cloud against its three main competitors and found a 72-percent overlap. Ouch! Yes contracts can spell out firewalls between competitors with a single vendor, but can they truly stop all leakage in cross-category situations with all vendors large and small? Ghostery also identified Web site load times, lack of uniform encryption, and “diluted data” from third-party data sources as additional Cloud threats. Whether or not we like it, we’re taking on all this risk to get the consumer served.

What’s your take on the Marketing Cloud? Is software-as-a-service making marketing easier – or harder? Are you in control of all your vendors (and what they are doing)? Do you have the ways and means in place to manage data flows and data analysis and apply learning throughout the organization? And keep this learning proprietary?

Helpful Links:


“The biggest challenge that you see as a cloud beginner is security, followed by compliance, followed by managing multiple clouds. Now, it’s interesting, because as you move down to cloud focus, you’ll see … the top challenges change for cloud-focused companies.”

– Kim Weins, Vice President for Marketing, RightScale, reported in Fierce Enterprise Communications



My two grown daughters (Kathrine – 31 and Shelby – 28) tell me I’m a conference junkie. And I suppose it’s true. If I had the time (and $!) I’d probably attend at least one conference each month.

So last month was pure joy for me. I attended 3(!) conferences.

Here are some big ideas I learned at these events:

  1. My good friend Charlie Stryker was the keynote speaker at the Adlucent conference. He told us there are 5 billion gigabytes of data made newly available every day. The focus has been on big data, but it should be on smart data. Leading companies find the data that matters to them and then use it, understand and apply it is an intelligent way. This requires new types of SaaS (software-as-a-service, such as GoodData) and bigger, smarter analytic teams or partners.

    [Heads up, the Direct Marketing Club of New York will be hosting a Data Innovators Group Dinner on April 24 in New York City – where they will be honoring Charlie as the Data Innovator of the Year.]

  1. RampUp was all about how to use offline data to improve online marketing results. In fact, LiveRamp, the conference host, offered up the most profound idea from the conference. LiveRamp does one thing…onboard consumer offline data by placing a cookie on its clients’ customers’ records so each customer can be recognized on the web (not using personally identifiable data, but through a de-identified digital identity). Having such data history in hand, in real time, allows marketers to deliver relevant messages when customers visit their sites or partner sites.

    Too often we try to “boil the ocean” when it comes to the offline/online challenge – and as consumers move between screens and channels. But simple yet very powerful methods can yield big results.

  1. South By Southwest® is such a big and comprehensive event (from education trends to sports marketing – almost anything you can imagine) that one take-away is challenging, but my favorite came from a marketing-as-a-service session led by Team Detroit, Hipcricket and Digitaria Interactive.

The availability of customer and prospect data (and consumers’ willingness to share) means that today’s customers expect (require!) relevant messages and offers. The segment-of-one is a reality. Marketplace winners will be leaders in recognizing consumers and dialoguing with them. Companies no longer should send “email blasts” or make the same offer to everyone. Every channel is now addressable.

If you were at one of these events, please post the Big Ideas you learned.

Helpful Links:

Mobile Marketing Watch: “What We Learned about the Future at SXSW 2014”

iMediaConnection: “SXSW hot topics: Email, the Whole Funnel, and Customization”

Digiday: “What Caught Marketers’ Eyes at SXSW”

Digiday: “The 15 Worst People of SXSW” (just a little bit funny)

LiveRamp2014 RampUp Summit Agenda:

Adlucent’s Client Summit Press Release—22-192095511.html

Data Innovators Group Dinner in New York City – Where Charlie Stryker Will be Honored on April 24 (Register If You Can Come)


“SXSW also showcased geo-location and customized ad delivery. ‘Beacons,’ which were used sparingly at the show, will be ‘getting small’ very soon, as small as a grain of sand, in fact. And, while big data was certainly a topic of discussion, hyper personalized customer service was a bit more popular…”

– Michael Essany, Mobile Marketing Watch

Posted by: garyskidmore | March 20, 2014

Privacy & A Skeptical Consumer


Image courtesy of franky242 /

In the never-ending pursuit of the engaged, loyal customer, brands are trying to present themselves to the right audiences, with the right message, at the right time – and they need data to do it, no matter what the communications channel.  This is happening at a time of increasingly skeptical marketplace.

In the privacy arena, at the same time, I’d say we’re a fed-up bunch. In a January address, President Obama seemed to lump National Security Agency surveillance, marketers’ data use, and other modern-day privacy concerns in one big privacy pot… which made me scratch my head.  Isn’t public sector use of personal information – and private sector use of the same… two different issues?

Public sector use of personally identifiable data may or may not improve national security, improve law enforcement and it may impugn civil liberties. As for the private sector? Well in the world of marketing at least, it’s simply to increase value and relevance; to create, serve and retain a customer; and to generate commerce, jobs and tax revenue in the process.

Still, the President may be onto something (that’s really hard for me to admit): Americans may have distrust of Big Government, but they aren’t head-over-heels for big brands either. Even worse for marketers would be for consumers to see business and government in quiet collusion against citizen privacy and civil liberties. The President might be rolling this up altogether, perhaps as a distraction from the NSA debate.  It is clear the Direct Marketing Association seeks to dispel this point of view.

Yet the takeaways for brands and marketers, in my mind, are clear. Trust is essential – earn it, protect it, focus on it:

  1. Be absolutely transparent and give each consumer (and business individual) a choice on personally identifiable data usage, and track each individual’s channel preferences.
  2. Use marketing data for marketing purposes only. Adhere to all marketing-privacy self-regulation regimes.
  3. Keep your privacy policies up to date with advertising technologies being used – and keep these policies short, concise and free from legalese.
  4. Perform due diligence on all third-party data you incorporate in customer and prospect data. Make sure its original source also included disclosures and permissions.
  5. Secure data (PII and otherwise) – perform a security audit, map all data flows, and test all points where data are exchanged (vendors included). Beyond trust, business continuity also depends on this.
  6. Design all data-driven processes and products with consumer privacy in mind.

This is just a starter list – and you may have additional “rules” of engagement you might add to this in comments.  I’d welcome your sharing them.  

Let’s be certain:  U.S. consumers, at least, want relevant messaging from the brands they interact with – but in achieving such relevance, we need to be transparent and empower customers in that pursuit.

Helpful Links:

Will the White House’s big data privacy initiative distract from the NSA debate?

Direct Marketers Object to Obama’s NSA Comparison

We want to be your friend | Brands are finding it hard to adapt to an age of skepticism

Consumer Confidence in Online Privacy Hits 3-Year Low | Most afraid of businesses, not government

2014: Trust is the New Currency

Are Consumers ‘Falling Out of Love’ With Brands?


“But spare a thought for the poor admen. Their industry is going through a particularly difficult time. Not only are they confronting a proliferation of new ‘channels’ through which to pump their messages; they are also having to puzzle out how to craft them in an age of mass scepticism. Consumers are bombarded with brands wherever they look—the average Westerner sees a logo (sometimes the same one repeatedly) perhaps 3,000 times each day—and thus are becoming jaded. They are also increasingly familiar with the tricks of the marketing trade and determined to cut through the clutter to get a bargain. Scepticism and sophistication are especially pronounced among those born since the early 1980s. A study by the Boston Consulting Group found that 46% of American ‘millennials’ use their smartphones to check prices and online comments when they visit a shop.”

 – Economist, Feb. 1, 2014

Posted by: garyskidmore | February 27, 2014

It’s Earnings Season – And the Markets Tell a Story

Image - Stock Market Board

The Markets Define Value

It’s been a while – much too long – since I posted a From ATX blog post. Well, check off one of my New Year’s resolutions (well, maybe a Chinese New Year resolution at this late date), I’m back in the saddle here in Austin.

To kick things off, I’ve listened in on many 2013 fourth-quarter and full-year earnings call from many leading brands – some I admire, some where I hold shares, and all of them in the news and leaders in their respective categories. In each case, I share some observations and key take-aways.

Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV) the most consistently, high-performing company in America (and in maybe the world) has done it again. It has just completed 41 consecutive years of profit…including 2001. The key? Its people… mentioned throughout the call as the reason for the company’s achievements.

Apple (NasdaqGS:APPL) – Year after year, the expectations of financial analysts are outrageous in my mind. Apple sets a record for revenue and profit, but it wasn’t good enough, and so its stock price fell. No other company is held to such a high standard for level of performance. In my opinion, Apple delivers.

Netflix (NasdaqGS:NFLX) is my current favorite company. It is changing the TV industry. As of the end 2013, it counted 44 million members worldwide (33 million in the U.S., up 14% over a year ago) watching what they want, when they want it. Netflix is an entertainment company with its own high-quality content (Millie and I are watching season 2 of “House of Cards,” which won an Emmy) and a technology company able to serve high-speed, on-demand video. If it were a network, it would be the fifth largest – trailing only the 4 majors.

Google (NasdaqGS:GOOG) is the most powerful company in the world and it worries me. Look at the metrics: 67% of all web searches in the world are on Google, and Google+ members are up to 540 million. They store every search and e-commerce transaction conducted on its platform – it knows everything about your web behavior. For the most part, the company doesn’t use it and doesn’t allow access to it, but what would happen if it did?

Disney (NYSE:DIS) – The Walt Disney Company has the happiest place on earth and has very happy shareholders. Earnings Per Share grew 32% in Q4. Its parks and resorts worldwide have record attendance, ESPN is still growing, “Frozen” is a smash success on the screen, all while the company is successfully integrating huge acquisitions in Marvel and Lucasfilm. What a great company, and they’ll even teach you how it does it at the Disney Leadership Institute.

Facebook (NasdaqGS:FB) is a really young company that in the past year transformed itself into one of the biggest mobile marketers. More than 50% of its revenue originated on mobile last quarter. In fact, mobile revenue in Q4 was higher than all its revenue in Q4 of the previous year. Facebook now has 1.23 billion members (increasingly older, which equals bigger spending from those members, thus advertisers). (Note: The WhatsApp purchase came after the earnings call.)

Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) had its first earnings call and the challenges are obvious: how can the platform get more revenue (GROWTH!) and make a profit from advertises who want to reach Twitter’s 225 million active/engaged users. And how can it do this without changing the basic Twitter user experience. This will be one of the great business stories of 2014 and for the next few years.

Amazon (NasdaqGS:AMZN) – The everything store set more records in Q4…revenue up 20% to $25.6 billion. How do you describe Amazon today? A retailer, entertainment company (Amazon Instant Video), a tech company (Kindle and Cloud Services)… but maybe more than anything… a big data company! The company knows the purchasing behavior of its 240 million customers so well they may be able to ship you a product you want – even before you order it and you’ll be happy that it did.

Linkedin (NYSE:LNKD) is both fast growing ($447 million revenue in Q4) and profitable ($111 million in Q4). Maybe the most important business-to-business tool today….connecting, getting a job, hiring, information learning. I use it all day, every day. It is a well-managed company and is unmatched in its scope.

I’m a big fan of these companies. They are transforming marketplace dynamics – literally how we work, play and live – even as they evolve themselves. That’s exciting, and for me, very hopeful about the kind of world we’re becoming – and the businesses and business leaders who are getting us there.


“It’s far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price.”

– Source: Warren Buffet in a Letter to Shareholders, 1989

Posted by: garyskidmore | March 13, 2013

SXSW Interactive 2013

ImageA confession:  although I’ve lived in Austin since 1976, this is the first year I’ve been to SXSW.  I know, I know… how could I have let that happen.

Well, my life has changed a lot in the last 8 months and now I’m in the middle of all things social in my new role at Dachis Group.  So I spent the last 5 days in sessions, meeting really smart people and learning about amazing new products (

Here are my rookie observations.

  1. SX Interactive is much more than a technology conference.  It’s a gathering about tech/business/life.  For example, I attended sessions on the latest tech in social, how to manage and sell to millenials, and how tiny habits can lead to big behavior change.  Every one of the 16 sessions I attended was very good.
  2. That said, the real power of SX is not the sessions, but the unexpected connections with other attendees that will lead to fantastic business and personal opportunities.
  3. The next big product idea (like Twitter and Foursquare at past SX’s) was here.  I don’t know if it’s Yabbly or Koozoo or one of the hundreds of other new products I saw and heard about, but it was here.  As Bruce Sterling said yesterday, “the disrupters will be disrupted.”
  4. The best new ideas are the most simple.  Who would have thought that being able to share 140 character thoughts would change how we communicate?
  5. There weren’t enough of my peers (the “50 and up” generation) at SX.  I’m not saying I’d rather spend time with my peers instead the 30 and under crowd (they are the smartest generation every!).  But I worry that my peers think they have nothing more to learn.  Are you kidding me!?  There’s no way to keep up with all that’s happening in the tech business world.  SX is best way I’ve found to spend a concentrated 5 days learning.   Time well spent.

The broad appeal of the SXSW Interactive may be best shown by Oreo being an event sponsor.  Since tweeting “you can still dunk in the dark” during this year’s Super Bowl blackout, they’re one of the hottest companies in social.  Who’d thunk it.

Put it on you calendar… SXSW Interactive 2014… March 7-11, 2014… Austin.

Posted by: garyskidmore | February 7, 2013

Our Annual Trip to Washington

Millie and I are on the plane…flying to Washington, DC for the national prayer breakfast.   This year is our tenth time.  Like many of you, until we attended, we really had no idea what happened at this annual event.  Yes, there’s a breakfast, prayer and the President speaks, but I would not describe this as a religious event. 

 How’s that possible?

There are about 3500 people who attend and many are not Americans, are not white and not Christian.  Tomorrow at the Washington Hilton people from all walks of life, all faiths, political and not, will gather in the name of Jesus — his principles and teachings.  It is profound.

 We’ve been seated with Muslims and Baptists, Jews and Pentecostals, Senators and Tribal leaders.  Rich and poor, some who speak English, old and young. 

 The one unifying element — all who gather believe the world would be better if we simply loved each other more, took better care of the sick and poor, and just treated each other the way we’d like to be treated.

 The highlight of our ten years was hearing Bono speak in 2006.  I’ve attached a link to a video of that speech to this blog.  I hope you can take the 20 minutes to hear his simple message.  I believe it will encourage and convict you — like it does us every time we listen.



Posted by: garyskidmore | November 22, 2012


From the Wall Street Journal last year.  A great reminder.  Hope you all had a great day.Image

Thank You. No, Thank You

Grateful People Are Happier, Healthier Long After the Leftovers Are Gobbled Up


 It turns out, giving thanks is good for your health.

 A growing body of research suggests that maintaining an attitude of gratitude can improve psychological, emotional and physical well-being.

 Adults who frequently feel grateful have more energy, more optimism, more social connections and more happiness than those who do not, according to studies conducted over the past decade. They’re also less likely to be depressed, envious, greedy or alcoholics. They earn more money, sleep more soundly, exercise more regularly and have greater resistance to viral infections.

 Now, researchers are finding that gratitude brings similar benefits in children and adolescents. Kids who feel and act grateful tend to be less materialistic, get better grades, set higher goals, complain of fewer headaches and stomach aches and feel more satisfied with their friends, families and schools than those who don’t, studies show.

 “A lot of these findings are things we learned in kindergarten or our grandmothers told us, but we now have scientific evidence to prove them,” says Jeffrey J. Froh, an assistant professor of psychology at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., who has conducted much of the research with children.

 “The key is not to leave it on the Thanksgiving table,” says Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California-Davis and a pioneer in gratitude research. And, he notes, “with the realization that one has benefited comes the awareness of the need to reciprocate.”

 Philosophers as far back as the ancient Greeks and Romans cited gratitude as an indispensable human virtue, but social scientists are just beginning to study how it develops and the effects it can have.

 The research is part of the “positive psychology” movement, which focuses on developing strengths rather than alleviating disorders. Cultivating gratitude is also a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy, which holds that changing peoples’ thought patterns can dramatically affect their moods.

It’s possible, of course, to over-do expressions of gratitude, particularly if you try to show it with a gift. “Thanking someone in such a way that is disproportionate to the relationship—say, a student giving her teacher an iPod—will create resentment, guilt, anger and a sense of obligation,” says Dr. Froh.

Gratitude can also be misused to exert control over the receiver and enforce loyalty. Dr. Froh says you can avoid this by being empathic toward the person you are thanking—and by honestly assessing your motivations.

 In an upcoming paper in the Journal of Happiness Studies, Dr. Froh and colleagues surveyed 1,035 high-school students and found that the most grateful had more friends and higher GPAs, while the most materialistic had lower grades, higher levels of envy and less satisfaction with life. “One of the best cures for materialism is to make somebody grateful for what they have,” says Dr. Froh.

 Much of the research on gratitude has looked at associations, not cause-and-effect relationships; it’s possible that people who are happy, healthy and successful simply have more to be grateful for. But in a landmark study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2003, Dr. Emmons and University of Miami psychologist Michael McCullough showed that counting blessings can actually make people feel better.

 The researchers randomly divided more than 100 undergraduates into three groups. One group was asked to list five things they were grateful for during the past week for 10 consecutive weeks. The second group listed five things that annoyed them each week and the third group simply listed five events that had occurred. They also completed detailed questionnaires about their physical and mental health before, during and after.

 Those who listed blessings each week had fewer health complaints, exercised more regularly and felt better about their lives in general than the other two groups.

Drs. Froh and Emmons conducted a similar study with 221 sixth- and seventh-graders from Candlewood Middle School in Dix Hills, N.Y., an affluent area on Long Island. Although the effects weren’t as dramatic as with the adults, the students in the gratitude group did report a higher level of satisfaction with school and more optimism than the students who listed irritations, according to the study in the Journal of School Psychology in 2008.

 As simple as it sounds, gratitude is actually a demanding, complex emotion that requires “self-reflection, the ability to admit that one is dependent upon the help of others, and the humility to realize one’s own limitations,” Dr. Emmons says.

Being grateful also forces people to overcome what psychologists call the “negativity bias”—the innate tendency to dwell on problems, annoyances and injustices rather than upbeat events. Focusing on blessings can help ward off depression and build resilience in times of stress, grief or disasters, according to studies of people impacted by the Sept. 11 terror attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

 Can people learn to look on the bright side, want what they have and be grateful for it? Experts believe that about 50% of such temperament is genetic, but the rest comes from experience, so there’s ample opportunity for change. “Kids and adults both can choose how they feel and how they look at the world,” says Andrew Greene, principal of Candlewood Middle School, who says that realization was one of the lasting legacies of Dr. Froh’s research there.

 Some experts believe that children don’t develop true gratitude until they can experience empathy, which usually occurs around age 7. But researchers at Yale University’s Infant Cognition Center have shown that infants as young as 6-months old prefer characters who help to those who hinder others. To help lay the groundwork for gratefulness, Dr. Froh says he asks his 4-year-old son, James, each night what was his favorite thing about the day and what he is looking forward to tomorrow.

 For older children and adults, one simple way to cultivate gratitude is to literally count your blessings. Keep a journal and regularly record whatever you are grateful for that day. Be specific. Listing “my friends, my school, my dog” day after day means that “gratitude fatigue” has set in, Dr. Froh says. Writing “my dog licked my face when I was sad” keeps it fresher. Some people do this on their Facebook or MySpace pages, or in one of dozens of online gratitude groups. There’s an iPod app for gratitude journaling, too. The real benefit comes in changing how you experience the world. Look for things to be grateful for, and you’ll start seeing them everywhere.

 A Buddhist exercise, called Naikan self-reflection, asks people to ponder daily: “What have I received from…? What have I given to…? and What trouble have I caused…?” Acknowledging those who touched your life—from the barista who made your coffee to the engineer who drove your train—and reflecting on how you reciprocated reinforces humbleness and interdependence.

 Delivering your thanks in person can be particularly powerful. One study found that fourth-graders who took a “gratitude visit” felt better about themselves even two months later—particularly those whose moods were previously low.

Adopting a more upbeat mind-set helps facilitate gratitude, too. Instead of bonding with friends over gripes and annoyances, try sharing what you’re grateful for. To avoid sounding boastful, focus on giving credit to other people, as in, “My mom took a whole day off from work to get to my game.”

 Studies show that using negative, derogatory words—even as you talk to yourself—can darken your mood as well. Fill your head with positive thoughts, express thanks and encouragement aloud and look for something to be grateful for, not criticize, in those around you, especially loved ones. New York psychiatrist Drew Ramsey says that’s an essential tool for surviving the holidays. “Giving thanks for them helps you deal with the craziness that is part of every family,” he says.

 Last, if you find you take too much for granted, try the “It’s a Wonderful Life” approach: image what life would be like without a major blessing, like a spouse, a child or a job. In a 2008 study in the Journal of Personal Social Psychology, researchers found that when college students wrote essays in which they were asked to “mentally subtract” a positive event from their lives, they were subsequently more grateful for it than students whose essays simply focused on the event. The “George Bailey effect” was modest, the authors noted, but even small boosts in positive emotions can make life more satisfying.


Write to Melinda Beck at

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