The psychology of giving thanks.

As everyone sits down tonight to feast on turkey, they will be going around the table giving thanks for everyday sources of gratitude, like friendships, relationships, and good health. According to psychological research, there are plenty of reasons why Thanksgiving itself can help maintain and improve those very things for which people are thankful.

Make Every Day Thanksgiving

Most people with a significant other give thanks for their spouses, boyfriends, or girlfriends at the Thanksgiving dinner table. However, anyone who’s partnered up should try to extend that gratitude throughout the rest of the year. 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.

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. 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.

It’s Good To Give Gratitude…

Expressing gratitude can do a lot more good than simply making your husband or wife happy; it can make you a better person, too.

First of all, grateful adults report higher levels of well-being, regardless of age, gender, or marital status. This effect even holds after you control for other relevant personality traits, like neuroticism (or moodiness), extraversion, openness, agreeableness, or how forgiving a person tends to be. Over and above all of these variables, there is still a significant, positive relationship between gratitude and subjective well-being.

Secondly, experiencing gratitude can have a dampening effect on some morally questionable behaviors. In one study, some participants were prompted to vividly recall and write about a time when they felt grateful, while others recalled a neutral memory. They were then told that there were two tasks to be completed (one pleasant and one unpleasant), and they had to complete one themselves and assign the second to another participant. Half of the participants who were induced to feel gratitude assigned the desirable task to their partners…while over 80% of the participants in the control condition gave them the undesirable task! Furthermore, there is something in particular about gratitude that evokes this cooperative response; participants were induced to feel proud felt just as happy as those who felt gratitude, but acted no better than the control participants. It’s not simply that people act more altruistically when they are happier, or when they feel better about themselves. There is something very special about gratitude.

…And Good To Receive It!

Expressing gratitude is 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.

What’s the logic behind this effect? 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 the helped 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 if someone helps you, make sure you express your gratitude – this will make your helper feel capable and valued, and this sense of social “worthiness” will increase the odds that he/she will go on to help more people and spread the joy.

In the end, if you’re grateful for your friends and family, let them know about it all year round! It will help your relationships, your well-being, and the world around you.

This year, among many other things, I am especially thankful for my family, my friends, my amazing boyfriend, my two crazy cats, a healthy body that can make it through a Tough Mudder, my loved ones’ health, and my education.

Happy Thanksgiving!

More links on the psychology of gratitude and Thanksgiving:
A Serving of Gratitude brings Healthy Dividends – New York Times
The Benefits of Thanks – Science Sushi
Chicken Soup for the Lonely Soul: Why Comfort Food Works – The Thoughtful Animal


ResearchBlogging.org

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: 10.1037/0022-3514.86.2.295

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

Tong, Eddie M. W., & Yang, Ziyi (2011). Moral hypocrisy: Of proud and grateful people. Social Psychological and Personality Science

Hill, Patrick L., & Allemand, Mathias (2011). Gratitude, forgivingness, and well-being in adulthood: Tests of moderation and incremental prediction. The Journal of Positive Psychology

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

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5 responses to “The psychology of giving thanks.

  1. Thank you for this valuable post…frequently common sense is the hardest skill to learn.

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  4. Wonderful insights and advice that we should all heed.

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