The Grateful Advisor

How the field of positive psychology can transform your advisory practice—and your life

By Gary Shunk

Key Takeaways:

  • Feelings often run high when families discuss money. Practices from positive psychology can benefit advisors in their delivery of services to the family.
  • positive psychology is a strengths-oriented approach to life.
  • Gratitude is a key component of positive psychology. It’s based on acknowledging the goodness in one’s life and recognizing that goodness can come from outside oneself.
  • When it comes to advising families about their wealth, advisors who practice gratitude can uncover unrealized strengths within family members.

The field of positive psychology was founded by several psychologists, including Martin E.P. Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania. In 1998 Seligman challenged his colleagues to consider investigating the positive side of psychology. Until that time, most psychological research had focused on what Seligman called ”human suffering and misery.“ Studies on depression, anxiety and ”negative emotions“ dominated the field. He successfully encouraged scientific inquiry into happiness, love, joy and well-being—”positive emotions.“ Because of the incredible results of much of the research, the field of positive psychology is flourishing in study and in practice.

In addition to growing and preserving a family’s wealth, financial advisors are in a unique position to be of deep and transformative service. They also stand at the front lines of a family’s inner needs. Much like a family physician, the advisor is available to help with a family’s deepest concerns. Money is the conduit; and money is emotionally dynamic. When families and their advisors discuss money or business concerns, feelings often run high. Sometimes these feelings are difficult and challenging. Practices from positive psychology can benefit advisors in their delivery of services to the family as well as in their working relationships with each other.

Getting started with positive psychology

One place to start is by adopting the practice of gratitude and incorporating it into your practice. Gratitude is an especially useful component of positive psychology. Robert Emmons, author of ”Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier,“ said two important things about gratitude: First, it is an ”acknowledgement of goodness in one’s life.“ Second, gratitude is ”recognizing that the source(s) of this goodness lie at least partially outside of the self.“ He said further, ”The object of gratitude is other-directed; one can be grateful to other people, to God, to animals, but never to oneself.“ Emmons also pointed out, ”We discovered scientific proof that when people regularly engage in the systematic cultivation of gratitude, they experience a variety of measurable benefits: psychological, physical, and interpersonal.“

When it comes to advising families about their wealth, practicing gratitude can uncover unrealized strengths within family members. Most advisors do ”appreciate“ their clients and convey this appreciation in many ways. However, what would happen if an advisor began to develop a personal/organizational ”gratitude practice“ intentionally? What would this mean in the context of advising clients? As they say, ”The proof is in the pudding.“ Thus, in order to discover the benefits of positive psychology, we have to practice it.

Real-life example

Recently, a group of advisors in a multifamily office agreed to create and integrate gratitude practices into the day-to-day operations of their practice. Each advisor took the Realize 2 strengths-based assessment tool. This tool measures an individual’s (or a team’s) realized strengths, unrealized strengths, learned behaviors and weaknesses. As mentioned earlier, positive psychology is a strengths-oriented approach to life.

Each advisor was paired with a partner. Each pair studied the Realize 2 results of their partners. In particular, emphasis was placed on the importance of getting to know their partner’s unrealized strengths. An unrealized strength is a virtue, skill or ability such as strategic awareness, humor, competitiveness or relationship deepener.

Each of us has unrealized strengths. They are unrealized because we are unaware of them. Others can help us discover them. The firm’s partners were instructed to observe and then keep a log of the active expression of the unrealized strengths of their partners. At the end of each day, every pair sat together to take turns reporting what they had observed. This is a gratitude practice because one partner shows the other an appreciation for parts of themselves that they may be unaware of.

The pairings were rotated over the course of nine months. That way, every advisor in the firm had the opportunity to discover and report to every other advisor. After just two weeks of practice, the managing director said, ”This place is changing in wonderful ways—and our families are the beneficiaries.“ The long-term results have been profound, both for the individuals and for the firm.

Barbara Fredrickson, a professor at the University of North Carolina and a positive psychology researcher, developed the notion of ”broaden and build“ in her book, ”Positivity.“ She discovered that when people experience positive emotional states, they open up, become more creative and connect with others more readily. They broaden their capacities and are able to build on this expansiveness. This makes perfect sense. When we experience negative emotional states such as fear or anger, we close up. Think of the ”fight or flight“ response. When we close down, we lose our creativity and freedom and we disconnect. A gratitude practice opens the advisor to better communication and more empathy. These are critical attributes for working with clients of wealth. A Grateful Advisor is an open advisor, and a Grateful Advisor is successful on many levels.


Beginning a gratitude practice is easy. You can start tonight before you go to sleep. Sitting in your bed, take pen and pad and draw a line down the middle of your page. On the left-hand side, write three things you were grateful for today. You might write, ”For the conversation I had with my oldest daughter.“ On the right-hand side, write a few sentences as to why you were grateful. There you might write, ”I am grateful for our conversation because we have not been connecting for a few days. I was intentionally present with her today. It was evident to me she enjoyed our conversation. I sure did.“ This exercise is called, ”three good things“ or, ”three gratitudes.“ Do this right before you turn out the lights. Studies show that writing like this, even for a few minutes a day, results in ongoing and increased happiness.

The Grateful Advisor is a positive and strategic career move that will enable you to deliver better, more positive service to your clients. And it will make you happier.

About the Author

Gary Shunk is Business Relationship Coach at Working Partnerships, which helps firms and companies improve working relationships that are absolutely essential to achieving their annual results both inside and outside of their firms. He can be reached at 312-810-0011 or by emailing shunk@working-partnerships.com