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One Simple Choice Enhances the Benefits of Gratitude

Research on gratitude in relationships shows how to boost its impact.

Key points

  • Gratitude has three components: cognitive, emotional, behavioral.
  • Gratitude felt is good; gratitude expressed is even better.
  • Sharing gratitude amplifies its positive effects.

While the individual practice of gratitude has been shown to be beneficial, per research by Walsh, Regan and Lyubomirsky published in The Journal of Positive Psychology (2022), somewhat surprisingly the socialization of gratitude—what happens when gratitude is shared between actors and targets (recipients), and when gratitude is witnessed by others—has not been well-studied.

The Primacy of Gratitude

Gratitude is an evolutionary phenomenon, fundamentally connected with our basic needs for giving and receiving as a matter of communal survival and cooperation. Study authors observe that the word root comes from Latin gratia, meaning “favor”. Gratitude, a way of expressing thanks, is inherently interpersonal, typically expected to be reciprocal, one of the basic threads of the social tapestry. Failure to express heartfelt, sincere gratitude, when gratitude is appropriate, leads to rupture; generosity unrequited tends to wither intimacy.

Gratitude is a powerful state of mind, with important implications for individual well-being and relationship satisfaction. Ample research finds that gratitude—along with related concepts including optimism, mental flexibility, compassion, self-efficacy, grit, and other staples of positive psychology and self-actualization—has many benefits.

For example, participants in a research study asked to write a letter of gratitude to a kind benefactor reported increased well-being, replicated across many studies. In other research, gratitude has been shown to improve social relationships, physical health, and emotional well-being.

Gratitude, while an integrated, meaningful experience, may be considered to have three components: cognitive/thinking, emotions, and behaviors—all important to consider when we contemplate expressing gratitude for ourselves and others. Given how important gratitude has become to many peoples' everyday practice, understanding its social dimensions is key.

What Happens When Gratitude Is Shared?

In order to understand the social nuances of gratitude, Walsh and colleagues conducted two related studies, the first exploring actor-target gratitude impact and the second the effect of gratitude on witnesses to thankful behaviors.

Study 1

In the first study, over 350 undergraduate students, with one parent, participated in a letter-writing and receiving activity at three different points about one week apart. At the first time point, students wrote a letter expressing either gratitude or describing their daily activities (the control condition) and either shared it with the parent or did not, setting up four different groups (gratitude shared, gratitude unshared, activities shared and activities unshared). At the second point, students in the gratitude group were instructed to write a note expressing gratitude for a time when that parent had helped them.

Those in the sharing groups had an in-person conversation with their parent, using the letter as a point of departure. At the final time point, participants were checked to make sure they’d completed tasks as directed and were asked to write about what the experience was like. At each time point, participants completed various measures, including experiences of gratitude, mood and daily satisfaction, positive and negative emotions, overall life satisfaction, how much indebtedness or obligation they felt, how uplifted and connected they felt (“elevation”), and how close they felt to the other person.

Students who wrote letters but did not share gratitude showed increased gratitude, improved mood, and greater satisfaction. Those who shared experienced even greater gratitude as well as enhanced closeness, connection, and sense of being elevated.

Parents who received a gratitude letter reported greater gratitude, sense of indebtedness, and elevation. However, interestingly there was no difference whether there was in-person discussion or not. While there appeared to be a greater number of benefits for students than parents, the overall statistical effect was the same, suggesting they experienced a similar effect in different ways.

Study 2

In the second study, over 250 high school students were asked to read a letter that was written as if one of their peers had sent it to a parent, teacher, or friend. The letter came in three flavors: expressing gratitude from the student to the other person for an act of kindness; sharing positive news; or talking about a bland ("neutral") event. The students completed measures similar to those in the first study.

Participants who read gratitude letters—witnesses to kindness as it were—reported right afterward a boost in positive emotion and felt elevated, though they did not report feeling greater gratitude at that time. The effect of the gratitude letter was strongest in comparison with the neutral letter, and remained strong in comparison with the positive letter to a lesser degree of statistical significance, presumably because the positive news itself had an elevating effect.

Take-Home Messages

This study demonstrated a novel and crucial, perhaps intuitive, finding: Sharing gratitude amplifies the positive impact, benefiting both the giver and receiver of gratitude. Study authors call this a “gratitude for gratitude” effect. Those bearing witness to gratitude felt a boost in positive emotion and felt uplifted and did not immediately increase gratitude.

This research is intriguing, perhaps the first of its kind to look at how gratitude reverberates throughout social systems through an experimental lens. Here, they looked at young adult children and their parents, a very particular relationship. It will be useful for future research to look at shared gratitude in other relationships, personal and professional.

Future research can also look at the aftereffects of sharing and witnessing gratitude—for example, are people in the gratitude conditions more likely to “pay it forward”, showing thankfulness in subsequent interactions?

It may be that although the witnesses in the second study did not report increased feelings of gratitude right away, as with other studies (e.g. on savoring), perhaps they experienced a priming effect leading to a change in behavior later on. Likewise, it is important to understand how best to incorporate gratitude practices into relationships and teams over time, as nuances including timing, sincerity, way of expressing appreciation, and others are likely to be critical factors.

Spread the Love

Expressing gratitude directly with those to whom we are thankful appears to benefit both parties and over time can be a relationship game changer—a virtuous cycle leading to greater gratitude, well-being, and intimacy. Having gratitude in the air, as it were, increases positive emotion and is uplifting for others.

Fostering a culture of gratitude builds community, mutuality, and leads to overall personal and relationship satisfaction, playing an important role in repairing strained relationships and helping to cement mutual growth and development. Making gratitude a social norm (without forcing it) helps us embrace the vulnerability often associated with expressing appreciation, leading to healthier dependency (interdependence).

The simple choice is to share gratitude with others, a step we don't always take. We may feel hesitant because of the closeness inherent in expressing appreciation, we may wonder whether the other person will welcome us or if we'll be rejected, or we may not be in the habit of expressing gratitude directly. Being mindful of the possibility for gratitude to elevate individuals and relationships, we can opt to express our thanks in meaningful, heartfelt, and specific ways to let the other person know just what helped and why.

References

Lisa C. Walsh, Annie Regan & Sonja Lyubomirsky (2022): The role of actors, targets, and witnesses: Examining gratitude exchanges in a social context, The Journal of Positive Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2021.1991449

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