If there are four things that people tend to have on their minds during the holiday season, it’s a) saving money, b) friends & family, c) the “holiday spirit,” and d) finding the perfect gift for everyone on their lists.
With this in mind, why not step out of the box when it comes to this year’s stocking stuffers? More specifically, why fill others’ stockings with material gifts when, instead, you can use your stockings to forge better, stronger relationships?
Research on gratitude has revealed that this simple emotion can do a lot for your social relationships. Gratitude can act like a “booster shot” of sorts for romantic relationships; couples that reported feeling gratitude towards their partners for everyday acts of kindness (like picking up your favorite coffee from Starbucks or doing the dishes without being asked) experienced higher levels of relationship quality and satisfaction the next day. Expressing thanks and gratitude for the things your partner does is not only good for your partner’s happiness — it increases your level of happiness and satisfaction with your relationship as well. It’s also not the case that people who express more gratitude simply have nicer romantic partners, and that’s the reason for the higher levels of satisfaction. The response is specifically related to gratitude; relationship partners who felt “indebted” to their partners for these everyday acts of kindness did not show the same spike in relationship satisfaction. Furthermore, couples who were instructed to express gratitude towards their romantic partners (even if they were not habitually expressing gratitude towards each other previously) experienced these spikes in relationship satisfaction as well.
This effect is not limited to romantic relationships. Another study looked at the same phenomenon in sorority women who were meeting each other for the first time; new members who reported feeling more gratitude towards the older sorority women who gave them gifts ended up experiencing higher relationship quality and satisfaction with that partner later on. Expressing gratitude is also not only helpful for the person who experiences it. In fact, receiving gratitude from others can be especially beneficial for the helpers themselves. When people who provided others with help were then thanked for their efforts, they were more likely not only to help that same person in the future, but also to help others as well. This happens because we all have two great needs in life — we want to feel like capable, competent people (agency), and we want to feel like we are connected to and needed by others (communion). When someone is thanked for his/her helpful behavior, this actually fulfills both of those core human needs. It fulfills the need for agency because it reinforces the idea that the helper is capable of providing needed help, and it fulfills the need for communion because it reinforces the idea that your assistance is valued and appreciated by others. In fact, when people have been thanked for their behavior (e.g. others have expressed gratitude towards them), they show spikes in how competent/capable they feel and also how socially valued they feel (though only this latter sense of perceived social worth is causally implicated in the increase in future helping behavior). So, whether it’s your sorority sister, girlfriend, husband, or best friend, there’s evidence to suggest one simple thing to make your life a little happier: If you feel and express gratitude for the things that others do, your relationships with those people will be better as a result.
This leads me to my Stocking Stuffer Suggestion. For the remainder of the days until Christmas (or any later date, if you do not celebrate Christmas), each member of a friendship/romantic relationship/family should write one daily thing for which they are grateful about the other person on a small piece of paper, and then place it in the other person’s stocking. These can range from small expressions of gratitude (e.g. “I’m grateful that you split your last Oreo with me after dinner!”) or larger, more value-laden expressions (e.g. “I’m grateful that you are such a kind parent to our children” or “I’m grateful that you were there to support me emotionally and financially when I was fired.”) After a period of several days, open up your stockings together and read through your loved ones’ daily gratitudes. It’s a simple way to feel better about your social, romantic, and familial relationships, to feel bright and rosy during the holiday season, and to strengthen your social bonds. And, as an additional perk, it’s completely free!
Plus, it’s a gift that’s been supported by scientific research. What’s not to love?!
Stocking Photo by Melanie Tannenbaum, 2012.
Parts of this post were previously included in a piece on Thanksgiving in 2011.
Algoe SB, Haidt J, & Gable SL (2008). Beyond reciprocity: gratitude and relationships in everyday life. Emotion, 8 (3), 425-9 PMID: 18540759
Algoe, Sara B., Gable, Shelly L., & Maisel, Natalya C. (2010). It’s the little things: Everyday gratitude as a booster shot for romantic relationships Personal Relationships
McCullough, M., Tsang, J., & Emmons, R. (2004). Gratitude in Intermediate Affective Terrain: Links of Grateful Moods to Individual Differences and Daily Emotional Experience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86 (2), 295-309 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1245
Gordon, Cameron L., Arnette, Robyn A.M., & Smith, Rachel E. (2011). Have you thanked your spouse today?: Felt and expressed gratitude among married couples. Personality and Individual Differences
Grant, A., & Gino, F. (2010). A little thanks goes a long way: Explaining why gratitude expressions motivate prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98 (6), 946-955 DOI: 10.1037/a0017935