A new study shows that expressing gratitude affects not only the grateful person, but anyone who witnesses it.
Researchers studying gratitude have found that being thankful and expressing it to others is good for our health and happiness. Not only does it feel good, it also helps us build trust and closer bonds with the people around us.
These benefits have mostly been observed in a two-person exchange, someone saying thanks and someone receiving thanks. Now, a new study suggests that expressing gratitude not only improves one-on-one relationships, but could bring entire groups together, inspiring a desire to help and connect in people who simply witness an act of gratitude.
It is thought that when people witness an expression of gratitude, they see that the grateful person is the kind of person who notices when other people do kind things and actually takes the time to acknowledge them, meaning, they’re a good social partner. People who are responsive as social partners are very desirable people. It’s possible that people are attracted to others who seem positive in general, or they simply feel elevated by witnessing the another person’s generosity.
But the problem is, gratitude doesn’t always come naturally. The negatives in our lives, the disappointments, resentments, and fears, sometimes occupy more of our attention than the positives.
Robert Emmons, a leading scientific expert on gratitude, argues that intentionally developing a grateful outlook helps us both recognise good things in our lives and realise that many of these good things are “gifts” that we have been fortunate to receive. By making gratitude a habit, we can begin to change the emotional tone of our lives, creating more space for joy and connection with others.
It’s easy to imagine how gratitude might work very well in a workplace, where people are actually attending to and acknowledging other people’s good deeds and kindnesses. A whole group of people could be inspired to be kinder to one another, and, through this interwoven kindness, the group itself could become a higher-functioning group.
Fortunately, researchers have identified 4 practices for cultivating gratitude:
1. Count your blessings
Some days it feels like everything is going wrong. But often, even on bad days, good things happen too, we’re just less likely to notice them. That’s where the ‘Three Good Things’ practice comes in. This practice involves spending 5 to 10 minutes at the end of each day writing in detail about three things that went well that day, large or small, and also describing why you think they happened.
This simple practice is effective because it not only helps you remember and appreciate good things that happened in the past; it can also teach you to notice and savour positive events as they happen in the moment, and remember them more vividly later on.
By reflecting on the sources of these good things, the idea is that you start to see a broader ecosystem of goodness around you rather than assuming that the universe is conspiring against you.
Get yourself a gratitude journal!
2. Mental subtraction
In the words of Joni Mitchell, “you don’t know what you’ve got till its gone.” But sometimes just imagining that something is gone is enough to make you appreciate what you’ve got. One way to do that is to engage in the ‘Mental Subtraction of Positive Events’ practice, which involves considering the many ways in which important, positive events in your life, such as a job opportunity or educational achievement, could have never taken place, and then reflecting on what your life would be like without them.
Mental subtraction can counteract the tendency to take positive events for granted and see them as inevitable; instead, it helps you recognise how fortunate you are that things transpired as they did.
Ever notice that the first bite of cake is usually the best? We have a tendency to adapt to pleasurable things, a phenomenon called “Hedonic Adaptation”, and appreciate them less and less over time. But we can interrupt this process by trying the ‘Give it Up’ practice, which requires temporarily giving up pleasurable activities and then coming back to them later, this time with greater anticipation and excitement.
The goal of this practice is not only to experience more pleasure but to recognise how we take lots of pleasures for granted, and to try to savour them more. We often assume that more is better, that the greatest enjoyment should come from abundance and indulgence but research suggests that some degree of scarcity and restraint is more conducive to happiness.
But abstaining from the pleasures in your life isn’t the only way to help you savour them. Instead, you can try taking a ‘Savouring Walk’. In the age of smartphones, it’s a common experience to walk down the street with your eyes glued to your screen, unaware of your surroundings. But even without a phone in hand, you may simply be distracted or in a rush, and as a result you may miss opportunities to take in some things that can make you feel good, beautiful or awe-inspiring scenery, acts of kindness between people, adorable children.
The Savouring Walk involves walking for 20 minutes by yourself once a week, ideally taking a different route each time, paying close attention to as many positive sights, sounds, smells, or other sensations as you can.
4. Say “thank you”
Gratitude can be especially powerful when it’s expressed to others. Small gestures of appreciation, such as thank you notes, can make a difference, but there are some things that deserve more than a fleeting “thanks!”
If there is anyone in your life to whom you feel you’ve never properly expressed your gratitude, writing a thoughtful, detailed ‘gratitude letter’ is a great way to increase your own feelings of gratitude and happiness while also making the other person feel appreciated and valued; it may also deepen your relationship with them. Those who delivered and read the letter to the recipient in person, rather than just mailing it, reaped the greatest benefits.
It’s important to note that research shows, that six months after writing and delivering their ‘gratitude letter’, participants’ happiness levels had dropped back down to where they were before the visit. This finding reminds us that no single activity is a panacea that can permanently alter happiness levels after just one attempt. Instead, gratitude practices and other happiness-inducing activities need to be practiced regularly over time.
Does this mean we should all be expressing gratitude more frequently?
Though how it’s expressed could differ by context and culture. For some situations, it may be appropriate to be demonstrative rather than verbal, giving a hug (although the recent pandemic dictates that this is not an option at the moment), or bringing a gift of flowers. In another context, a simple thank you, especially if it’s sincere in a letter.
Whatever the case, though, it’s clear we can do more to increase social connection if we acknowledge the good in those around us.
Gratitude expression seems to be a unique kind of emotional experience that is really well-suited for relationship building between you and your parents, siblings, friends, spouses and work colleagues.
Over the past two decades, much of the research on happiness can be boiled down to one main prescription: give thanks. Across hundreds of studies, practicing gratitude has been found to increase positive emotions, reduce the risk of depression, heighten relationship satisfaction, and increase resilience in the face of stressful life events, among other benefits.
So don’t forget to say thank you this Christmas and always.
Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas!
Categorised in: Latest News