Giving Thanks: The Benefits of Gratitude
Why gratitude is good for your mental health
Posted May 25, 2010
We all like being thanked. It's a great feeling to have someone, especially someone who doesn't stand to gain, tell us that we made a difference in their lives. In the past few weeks, I've had the good fortune of receiving some heartfelt thank you notes from students, pausing as they got ready to leave campus for the summer, or perhaps for good, to take a moment and let me know that something I said or did proved helpful to them. I've also had the good fortune of having favors done for me by people who went out of their way to help me solve a problem, fix something, or in fortunately only one case- return a lost cellphone. Being thanked and having reason to thank others are two sides of the same gratefulness coin. Both exemplify the positive in human behavior and provide us with a positive charge that boosts our emotional balance.
On the surface it seems like gratitude has everything to recommend it. There are a few gratitude traps, though. Some people feel uncomfortable about being thanked. They get truly embarrassed, dismissing the thanker by insisting that "it was nothing" (though clearly the thanker felt otherwise). There are also some uncomfortable aspects about thank-yous when it comes to thank-you presents that are overly generous or could be interpreted as bribes.
If you're at the receiving end of a thank-you, you may feel unsure about how to reciprocate. Does a thank-you present require a thank-you note? What about thanking someone who's helped you? Do you reward a person who returns a lost item with cash or just allow your relieved face to serve as its own reward? Then there's the guilt factor: What if you let a few weeks slip by without sending a thank-you note for a birthday gift? Does it look worse to send a belated thank-you note or just to forget the whole thing and hope the gift-giver won't notice? Thank-you notes inspire their own particular forms of angst, as was pointed out in one particularly insightful Social Q's column of the New York Times (for the record: this column is a treasure trove of psychological insight on quirky behaviors).
It might be reassuring, then, to learn that the expression of thanks can be its own reward. Being the recipient of a favor can also make the favor-giver (if there is such a word) feel good too. Everyone benefits when thanks are freely given and just as freely acknowledged.
There are always exceptional circumstances involving acts of extreme altruism. Heroes are known as the people who put the needs of others above our own. These cases put in bold relief the fact that a hero doesn't expect thank-you notes or little gift baskets as acknowledgement of his or her sacrifice.
Many real-life heroes also do not expect thank-yous. Yet, when we benefit from the labors that others put out for our sake, we feel internally driven to and want to express our gratitude. And that's a good thing, in more ways than one.
Psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough point out that gratitude is the "forgotten factor" in happiness research. They point out the benefits of expressing gratitude as ranging from better physical health to improved mental alertness. People who express gratitude also are more likely to offer emotional support to others.
Expressing gratitude in your daily life might even have a protective effect on staving off certain forms of psychological disorders. In a review article published this past March (see below), researchers found that habitually focusing on and appreciating the positive aspects of life is related to a generally higher level of psychological well-being and a lower risk of certain forms of psychopathology.
Now how can you apply these ideas to your own life? Here are some suggestions to boost your own, shall we say, GQ's ("gratitude quotient"):
1. If someone thanks you, accept the thanks graciously. Let the person know you appreciate being thanked. That's all you need to do. Really.
2. If you find that difficult, think about why gratitude makes you uncomfortable. Do you not feel worthy of being thanked? In my study of personal fulfillment in midlife, I identified a subgroup of people whose own fulfillment was hampered by their lack of faith in their own worth. Chronic feelings of inadequacy can make it difficult for people to benefit from any thanks that come their way.
3. Look for small things to be grateful for. Not all acts of kindness have a capital "K." A driver who lets you ease into a busy highway deserves a wave just as much as someone who holds open a door when you're loaded down with packages. A smile will boost your GQ and make both of you feel better.
4. Don't fret about gratitude infractions. If you forget to send a thank you note don't worry about it and certainly don't use elapsed time as an excuse to avoid the task altogether. Send a quick email and then get to the real thing. If you're a chronic forgetter, though, you might try to figure out why. By the same token, if someone forgets to thank you, don't ruminate over it, thereby raising your BP if not your GQ.
5. Keep your thank you's short, sweet, and easy to write. One reason people procrastinate about writing thank you's is that they want them to be original and not seem hasty, insincere, or ill conceived. This doesn't mean the thank you should be one that is short enough to tweet but if you don't build it up in your mind as having to be a magnum opus you'll be less inclined to put it off. Whatever you do, don't make excuses or lie about having sent a thank you that you never did (for more on lying and excuse-making, check out my previous post).
I'll close by saying thanks in advance to anyone who chooses to add their comments to the discussion or wishes to forward the blog link. It's the least I can do!
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2010
Wood, A. M., Froh, J. J., & Geraghty, A. W. A. Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review.