Monday, June 13, 2011

It's good to give thanks: The benefits of gratitude

When someone does something nice for you, how does it make you feel? Do you experience gratitude in response to their act of kindness? Or does it leave you with a sense of indebtedness because now you owe them a kind act in return? Close relationships, and romantic relationships in particular, are characterized by the small acts of kindness we do for each other. Today you will be doing the dishes, paying for dinner, or taking out the trash, and tomorrow he will be taking you to the airport, putting gas in the car, or buying the groceries. Many of these small acts become so commonplace in relationships that they go unnoticed (how often do you thank your partner for taking out the trash, washing your dishes, or picking up the groceries, especially if it's become their "job"?). However, when you do notice those small acts, and feel grateful for your partner’s thoughtful behaviors, research shows that both you and your partner benefit.

How is gratitude beneficial?
To find out, Sara Algoe and colleagues completed a study with romantic couples where they had each member of the couple complete nightly diaries for two weeks.

Each night the partners would record:
-Whether they did anything nice for their partner that day, and how they felt about it
-Whether their partner did anything nice for them that day, and how they felt about it
-How connected they felt to their partner that day
-How they felt about their relationship that day (on a scale from terrible to terrific)

The Results
People reported doing something nice for their partner on about 35% of the days, and they reported their partner had done something nice for them on about 40% of the days. When people’s partners do engage in small acts of kindness, people tend to report feeling both gratitude and indebtedness. A small aside – men tend to report feeling more indebted than women.

Do these responses to a partner’s kind acts change how people feel about their relationships? Well, it turns out that on days when people felt more grateful for their partner's kind acts, they felt more connected to their partner and more satisfied with their relationship the following day than they did following days when they felt less grateful. And the benefits didn’t stop there. Their partners also reported feeling even more connected and satisfied the following day. As for indebtedness – feeling more indebted wasn’t associated with how good people felt about their relationships.

If he gets thanked, you'll both be happy
The bottom line: Over the course of a relationship you are not going to be able to say “thank you” for every little thing your partner does for you, but when you are able to take a moment and be grateful for your partner’s kind act, both you and your partner may experience a small “boost” in your relationship.

Gratitude isn't just good for your relationship, it's also good for you.
Algoe's is just one study of many on the merits of gratitude. For example, in a nine week experimental study, Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough found that people who were assigned to recall up to 5 things they were grateful for each week reported being happier with their lives, more optimistic about the upcoming week, experiencing less physical symptoms (e.g., runny nose, stomachache, headache), and exercising more than people who recalled up to 5 hassles or 5 major events they’d experienced that week.

It may seem obvious that recalling something positive and gratitude-inducing would have benefits relative to recalling something negative such as daily hassles. But then you start thinking about how people actually spend their time – how much time do we spend thinking about the good things we’ve been given and how much time do we spend complaining about all the things that have gone wrong? I know (and those closest to me would certainly agree!) that I spend much of my day whining about the annoying people on my commute, the bad weather, a bad night’s sleep, how much work I need to do, etc. So perhaps a change in focus from counting burdens to counting blessings is just what we need.

And if its not easy for you to focus on what you have, try thinking about if you’d never had it at all.

Have you ever kept a gratitude journal? Did you notice any change in how you felt about your life and your relationships as a result of focusing on what you had instead of what you didn’t have?

The Articles:

Algoe, S., Gable, S., & Masiel, N. (2010). It's the little things: Everyday gratitude as a booster shot for romantic relationships Personal Relationships, 17 (2), 217-233 DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.01273.x

Emmons, R., & McCullough, M. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84 (2), 377-389 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.84.2.377


  1. I had to keep a gratitude journal for a death and dying glass I took a year ago and am grateful for that discipline. As the semester went on, I found that the things for which I was grateful became more precise and more minute. Grateful for being able to hold a pen and write in my journal is one such entry. Or for breathing without need for apparatus or oxygen assistance.

    We practice gratitude in our home. My husband thanks me for dinner every evening, unless he cooks, which is seldom, and then I thank him. I do indeed thank him for taking out the trash. I rarely take a walk without thanking my body for carrying me.

    When we do forget to thank each other for a day, I feel it.

  2. Thanks for your comment Andrea. I love that you notice the difference that gratitude makes in your relationship.

    I know what you mean about being grateful for the more minute. I particularly have those most basic moments of gratitude when I get over a cold, and for a few days I feel so grateful that I can breath easily again. I also marvel at my ability to walk, talk, and think when I spend time with small children who are just learning these tasks.

    I do think that in some ways, however, its adaptive for us to take things for granted - we can't feasibly spend all of our moments reflecting on the novelty of our ability to breath, walk, talk, etc. Also, research has shown that people who are asked to recall things they are grateful for too frequently (for example, create a list several times per week versus once a week) actually don't show the same benefit. This may be due to fatigue with the task, and it may also be a result of people not being able to come up with enough new material. When people aren't able to complete the task, they may begin to feel that they don't have a lot to be grateful for.

    But I'm sure many of us could stand to have a few more grateful moments built into our day before we'd get overwhelmed by it!