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The Power of a Grateful Heart

Appreciating each other more, research shows, leads to, well, more appreciation.

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We don't often enough reflect on the things we are grateful for. So perhaps it's time to focus some attention on the importance of gratitude—specifically, feelings of gratitude in our close, personal relationships.

We typically define gratitude as a positive emotional state we experience when someone else intentionally provides us with some benefit or positive outcome (McCullough, 2001, as cited in Algoe & Zhaoyang, 2015). This could happen when someone does us a favor, says something nice, or simply offers a random act of kindness. Gratitude is, generally put, the swell of warmth and positivity we feel toward that person.

Historically, researchers believe that the evolutionary function of gratitude—the reason it’s something we feel—to be about repayment. We feel gratitude so that, in the future, we will help the person who helped us, thus helping society at large to function smoothly (McCullough, 2001, as cited in Algoe & Zhaoyang, 2015).

However, recent research has determined that gratitude toward our close relationship partners serves the additional purpose of helping to strengthen those bonds (Algoe, 2012). Specifically, gratitude serves to help us notice and attend to the positive, responsive behaviors that our loved ones enact toward us. It could be a time when your romantic partner made dinner because he or she knew you were stressed, or when your sister called to see how you were doing, or a friend sent you a small gift...just because. Any behavior that we perceive as responsive to our needs, which a close other has enacted purposefully, can promote feelings of gratitude (e.g., Algoe, 2012; Algoe, Haidt, & Gable, 2008).

These feeling, in turn, promote the well-being of our relationships. For example, new sorority members (or "Little Sisters") who felt more gratitude toward older sorority mentors' ("Big Sisters") kind actions toward them during an event known as Big Sister Week (i.e., giving small gifts) felt more connected with those mentors both during the event and a month later (Algoe et al., 2008).

In romantic contexts, feelings of gratitude toward a partner predicted individuals feeling more connection and satisfaction in their relationship the next day (Algoe, Gable, & Maisel, 2010). So it seems that an attitude of gratitude (sorry, I couldn’t resist) not only feels good to us individually but may also benefit our relationships.

However, before we run off and start designing interventions to promote gratitude in relationships, we need to better understand how feeling grateful promotes relationship health. What is the mechanism by which this association functions? Further, we need to better understand if promoting gratitude is always associated with positive outcomes—the relationship may be more complex than we realize.

Specifically, a recent, month-long study randomly assigned romantic couples either to actively try to express gratitude for their partner’s actions every day for a month, or not. The researchers found that, in the gratitude group, participants whose partners had been highly responsive to their needs during an intake session showed greater personal and relational well-being at the end of the study, compared to those in the control group. However, participants whose partners had been low in responsiveness during the intake session did not show this benefit (Algoe & Zhaoyang, 2015). Thus, perhaps asking individuals to focus on reasons they are grateful for their partner only confers benefits when their partner is responsive—thus giving them reasons to be grateful.

In sum, as we all deal with our hectic lives, it may do us some good to reflect on those things for which we feel gratitude. If those aspects are also important people in our lives, this reflection may benefit our relationships—as long as those important people have been responsive enough to our needs to deserve our gratitude.

Algoe, S. B. (2012). Find, remind, and bind: The functions of gratitude in everyday relationships. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 6(6), 455-469.

Algoe, S. B., Gable, S. L., & Maisel, N. (2010). It’s the little things: Everyday gratitude as a booster shot for romantic relationships. Personal Relationships, 17, 217-233.

Algoe, S. B., Haidt, J., & Gable, S. L. (2008). Beyond reciprocity: Gratitude and relationships in everyday life. Emotion, 8, 425-429.

Algoe, S. B., & Zhaoyang, R. (2015). Positive psychology in context: Effects of expressing gratitude in ongoing relationships depend on perceptions of enactor responsiveness. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1-17.

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