The Art of Thanks: Janyne Peek Emsick Shares Vision Behind Omaha Gratitude Summit

The inaugural Omaha Gratitude Summit may have just taken place Oct. 26 at the Scott Conference Center, said founder Janyne Peek Emsick, Ph.D., but the event was actually a long time coming.

“In January of 2020, I had what I call an ‘if you build it, they will come’ moment coming out of contemplative prayer one morning,” Peek Emsick said. “I very clearly kind of heard, ‘Janyne, create a gratitude summit and create an opportunity for folks in this community — this really generous community — to learn about the science and practice of gratitude, and to actually practice it.’”

Peek Emsick, also the CEO and an executive coach for, was studying gratitude at the time and was also intrigued by the concept of neuroplasticity introduced to her by Patricia Kearns. Kearns, a regular speaker for the Change Leadership course Peek Emsick taught at Creighton University, is CEO of Omaha-based QLI, a world-class rehabilitation center. 

“I had learned a little bit about [neuroplasticity] from Pat, and so when this gratitude summit idea popped, she was one of the first people that I went to and said, ‘What do you think?’ She said, ‘I love it,’” Peek Emsick said. “She actually introduced me to their neuropsychologist. And we booked the Scott Center. We had a date set. It was going to be called Thanksgiving in July.”

Before Thanksgiving in July could be fully fleshed out, however, the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. In-person gathering was curtailed, but planning for a summit emphasizing both the practice and science of gratitude continued to move forward. Peek Emsick ultimately booked a leading expert on gratitude, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, to speak at what became October 2022’s Omaha Gratitude Summit. QLI’s Director of Psychology Services, Dr. Jeff Snell, was also secured as a featured speaker. 

“Since my area of interest is the brain, and how its anatomy and functioning relates to our thoughts, emotions and behaviors, I was very interested to learn more for myself about the neurology of gratitude. I was intrigued to learn of the many positive benefits — not just emotionally, but physically as well — are associated with the regular practice of gratitude,” Snell said. 

“Because of my earlier experiences of remote presentations with Janyne on this and related topics, I was happy to be invited to speak on this topic at the Gratitude Summit, and to have the opportunity to hear Dr. Emmons — a world leader on the topic of gratitude — firsthand.”

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Snell said that, like all aspects of learning, our brain changes as we present it with new information and new routines. 

“That physiological adaptation, which reflects the building and strengthening of neural networks, is ‘neuroplasticity’ — the physiological changes that underlie the ability of the brain to become more efficient at a task that we perform on a regular basis,” he explained. “With respect to the practice of gratitude, we can not only shape our perceptions to be more inclusive of positive possibilities, but we can also alter our brain/body physiology in positive ways.” 

Reductions in stress and depression are associated with the purposeful practice of gratitude, Snell said, and studies have demonstrated a reduction of stress hormone cortisol in individuals who regularly practice gratitude. The practice of gratitude is also associated with improved physical and emotional functioning, including boosting the immune system. 

“The practice of gratitude tends to make people happier, less depressed, less anxious and more resilient. It is also a process that involves relationships; as we benefit from the practice of gratitude, we also share those experiences with others,” Snell said. “The bottom line is that the practice of gratitude is cheap, always available to us, and provides tremendous benefits not just to ourselves but also those around us. It positively impacts the way in which our brain processes information, predicts outcomes, and produces ‘automatic’ emotional routines that elevate our general mood and outlook. And all it takes is conscious practice; doing something that makes us feel good.”

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska stepped up early on as the inaugural Gratitude Summit’s presenting sponsor.  

“Cultivating a spirit of gratitude and recognizing the impact that mindset has in the workplace is so important,” said Susan Courtney, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska’s executive vice president of operations and clinical effectiveness. “Collectively, we’ve all been through an unprecedented and difficult time with the pandemic. During an experience like that, with so much bad news coming at us on a daily basis, it would be easy to lose hope and focus on what was lost. 

“When we focus on gratitude, however, we can make peace with the past, appreciate the blessings we have and lean more into how we can help others.”

On a corporate level, Courtney said gratitude aligns with her organization’s values, something many Gratitude Summit attendees could relate to. 

“We are so grateful to be part of our members’ health journeys and to be there for them when they need us,” she said. “Internally, with our own employees, gratitude plays a key role in what we call our ‘One Team’ mindset. We know we can count on one another and lean on one another when things get tough. In fact, recipients of our annual ‘One Team’ awards — employees who go above and beyond — are nominated by their coworkers. That’s gratitude in action.”

The pandemic-necessitated delay for the summit’s launch date turned out to work in Peek Emsick’s favor, even allowing the concept to “simmer.” 

When 2022 arrived, Peek Emsick said it was a perfect time to reflect on the good things in life, such as the relationships we have. 

“It sure did seem like this is a great time to kind of draw a line in the sand and focus on what makes us grateful coming out of this place of our global ‘hard,’” she said. 

Peek Emsick said the first Gratitude Summit lived up to her expectations, and then some. She’s already planning the next event. 

“From the C suite to college students, we really had a beautiful range of participants,” she said. “Next year we’re going to focus on the relationship between gratitude and forgiveness, their impact on breaking down silos in our organizations and relationships, breaking down barriers in our organization and our relationship.” 

Peek Emsick also said that in a season that begins with a holiday earmarked for giving thanks, she’s — fittingly — grateful for how everything transpired. 

“One of Robert Emmons’s quotes that I really like, because it defines kind of the core of gratitude, is ‘Grateful living is only possible when we realize that other people and agents do things for us that we cannot do for ourselves.’ So, it’s recognizing someone, something outside of us, that has done something for us that we can’t do on our own; that’s kind of that lens that you bring to it … not because it’s something you did, but because of something that happened outside of yourself. Gratitude follows up with that awareness,” she said. 

“A gratitude summit serves as a catalyst for ripples of gratitude that flow through the community. And we do that by coming together to learn about the brain science and the practice of gratitude. And then to be equipped to actually practice this in our day-to-day life, that it is transformational in our personal lives, our organizations and our community.”

Gratitude Promotes Psychological Security and Safety in the Workplace

Gratitude enables:

Feeling safe to express ideas, identify and voice problems and have contradictory opinions.

Risk taking, which fuels innovation, creativity and continuous improvement.

Asking for help, promoting teamwork, collaboration and delegation.

The statistics:

93% of people agree that grateful bosses are more likely to succeed

88% of people say that expressing gratitude to colleagues makes them feel happier and more fulfilled

In one study from Harvard University and Wharton, receiving a “thank you” from a supervisor boosted productivity by more than 50%.

On a given day, only 10% of people say “thank you” to colleagues — and 60% of people report that they never or very rarely express gratitude at work

*Information provided by Omaha Gratitude Summit

Gratitude Makes our Community and Organizations Better

A 200,000-person study during the Great Recession by Chester Elton of CultureWorks found that grateful managers led teams with higher overall business metrics:

Two times greater profitability than their peers

20% higher customer satisfaction

Significantly higher scores in employee engagement, including vital metrics such as trust and accountability

Gratitude Improves Both Physical and Mental Health

Keeping a gratitude diary for two weeks produced sustained reductions in perceived stress (28%) and depression (16%) in health care practitioners

Dietary fat intake is reduced by as much as 25% when people keep a gratitude journal

Gratitude is related to 23% lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol

Writing a letter of gratitude reduced feelings of hopelessness in 88% of suicidal inpatients and increased levels of optimism in 94% of them

*Information provided by Omaha Gratitude Summit