Most of us have heard that an attitude of gratitude is associated with greater happiness, that saying "thank you" can help us feel positive emotions and relish enjoyable experiences. But new research shows that expressing thanks doesn't just have positive effects on our own mental health.
It can also make us more loving in romantic relationships, and more lovable in the eyes of those around us. The benefits of gratitude can permeate to our partners, social circles, and society as a whole — making for a more fulfilling life for everyone who bears witness.
Why an Attitude of Gratitude Matters
There aren't many aspects of life that can't be enhanced with an attitude of gratitude. Gratitude improves the mood by reducing anxiety and depression, promotes physical health by lowering blood pressure and strengthening the immune system, and even enhances sleep to allow us to feel more rested.
We clearly have some very compelling and personally beneficial reasons to practice gratitude, but the virtue's impact extends far beyond ourselves. A recent study showed that being thankful and genuinely expressing it helped romantic partners be more loving with one another, which surprisingly, could help them make more friends outside of the relationship as well.
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Perhaps the study's most interesting finding was of participants who witnessed a couple's gratitude in action. The researchers, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that when someone witnessed a couple's acts of thankfulness, they were more interested in getting to know the thankful person as well as the person on the receiving end of the expression.
The witness was more likely to hold both parties in high esteem, and felt like they could be vulnerable with the partners. These small, thoughtful actions have the potential to motivate others to pay the behavior forward in their own lives, creating a viral effect that can infiltrate society on a much larger scale.
Dr. Sara Algoe is the UNC professor who led the study, funded by the John Templeton Foundation. Dr. Algoe has dedicated her research to uncovering the necessary ingredients for loving relationships and positive social interactions between individuals.
"It's such a little gesture. It's not that hard to say 'thank you' to someone," Dr. Algoe says. "But that has the potential for helping another person establish better relationships, and it has potential for reverberating effects throughout your social network — connecting people within our communities in ways that I think are just starting to be understood."
Gratitude in Romantic Relationships
An attitude of gratitude is a key component of loving relationships. According to Dr. Algoe's research, actions that display thankfulness foster greater emotional intimacy and physical affection between partners.
Dr. Algoe and her team brought hundreds of couples into the UNC labs and recorded their conversations with a simple premise: one person picked something their partner had done for them recently and expressed gratitude to them for it.
Thankfulness fosters greater emotional intimacy and physical affection between partners.
The study showed that a partner's words of appreciation incentivized more positive behaviors in the relationship. A similar study by VU University of Amsterdam showed that over time, as couples become more accustomed to expressing gratitude, a positive cycle is established that promotes loving behavior from both individuals.
But not every "thank you" is created equal. To really cultivate openness and vulnerability in loving relationships, it takes more than mindlessly saying "thanks" every once in a while. Genuine gratitude looks like habitual, conscious expressions of thankfulness in an active way.
Dr. Algoe says the best expressions of gratitude describe what about your partner you're specifically thankful for. When we're able to articulate exactly how our partner has made us feel good, they feel seen and are more likely to repeat that behavior in the future.
Not every "thank you" is created equal.
"It's about putting that extra, little emphasis on what it was about their behavior that really stood out," explains Dr. Algoe. "When we say 'thank you' we're sending a message to the person who just did something nice for us — that they are valued, that they are seen, that the thing that they did for us was worth doing in the first place."
Consider a scenario where your partner does the laundry, for example. Rather than merely saying a quick "thank you" and moving on with your day, it's best to give specific reasons as to why the gesture was important to you. You might say something like, "Wow, I was really busy today and stressing about all the chores on my to-do list. Thank you for doing that for me so I could have a relaxing evening."
How to Practice Gratitude Daily
An attitude of gratitude can take some time to cultivate, especially for those who have trouble articulating their emotions, but it's well worth the effort. It's said that one of the best ways to start living a more appreciative lifestyle is to wake up every day and express what you're grateful for.
Tell your partner or roommate the three things you're most thankful for each day. Experts recommend making expressions of gratitude a habitual practice — even when you're having a bad day. If you're struggling to get the ball rolling, start by asking: "What could I be grateful for today?"
Dr. Sara Algoe
"When we say 'thank you' we're sending a message to the person who just did something nice for us — that they are valued, that they are seen, that the thing that they did for us was worth doing in the first place."
It's also important to take ownership of the present moment. Each day we're faced with a conscious choice as to whether we'll give thanks for both the good and the bad. When people explicitly choose gratitude, emotions like anger, envy, and self-pity wither away. The human brain likes the positive feelings that result from this behavior and will naturally want to repeat it.
With a little dedication to reinforcing appreciative habits, science shows it's possible to build a culture of love and gratitude around us. Although it might start small within personal relationships, gratitude's unique domino effect has the potential to reach entire communities, and beyond.