From the time we learn how to talk, it seems that we are being told to remember to say “thank you.” Our parents weren’t just teaching us manners; they were providing us with a tool for lasting happiness.
“We now know that having good social relationships is as good for you as things like smoking and obesity are bad for you,” says Sara Algoe, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “It turns out that there’s an emotion that happens to be really amazing at helping us solve this essential human problem of survival. And that emotion is gratitude.”
One of the most significant keys to longevity and well-being is being able to acquire and maintain high-quality relationships. Gratitude, Sara says, is the glue that can bring people together as well as creating happiness from the inside out.
Putting the ‘You’ in ‘Thank You’
Research, including Sara’s, shows that experiencing gratitude has immediate benefits. Learning to harness this power and becoming more intentional about it can improve our relationships and bolster our own health and happiness. “When we feel gratitude toward someone, we spring into action and reach out,” she explains. “It’s that act of reaching out that can draw another person into a relationship.” And, Sara adds, it can improve existing relationships.
When she conducted a study among couples in which one partner expressed gratitude to the other for a specific act, the rewards were exponential.
“Let’s say [the wife] did something nice for [her husband], just because she wanted to,” Sara says. The wife feels good for having done something nice and the husband is a happy beneficiary. But when he expresses his gratitude for her act of kindness, he now has reinforced her positive feelings. “So two people win for one person’s gratitude.” And, when you make gratitude a practice, Sara says, it changes the way others perceive you—and can have a ripple effect in your social network.
“People who express positivity in general are seen as friendlier, more competent and more likable,” Sara says. “Gratitude amplifies that. People see you as being more willing to help, but they also want to help you. They’re nice to you, they want to hang out with you—all of those are things that are good for your health.”
Gratitude: It’s Good for You!
Sara confirms what many studies have revealed: Practicing gratitude really could make you live longer—and better. While her work takes a closer look at the effect of gratitude on relationships, other studies have shown a direct link between good health and giving thanks.
Researchers at the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Poland recently looked at the effects of practicing gratitude on four groups: depressed men, depressed women, breast cancer patients and prostate cancer patients. After a 14-day training period in which they learned to reflect on what they were thankful for, all groups showed an increased sense of well-being and greater perception of social support.
A similar study from the same university focused solely on gratitude interventions in treating depression and found that practices such as keeping a gratitude journal, writing a letter of gratitude, counting blessings and gratitude visits all had a powerful effect, with journals being the most effective. Subjects who participated in the interventions increased their subjective happiness, improved their relationships, slept better and had more perceived social support.
“Gratitude is a psychological amplifier of the good in one’s life,” says Philip Watkins, Ph.D., of Eastern Washington University.
Gratitude’s Secret Sauce
Philip’s recent research looks at what activates gratitude and what ingredients are necessary to make it effective. The most critical component, he says, is appreciation. “Appreciation can best be understood as when something increases in perceived personal value,” he says. “Perceived value, and more importantly, increasing perceived value, is extremely important to gratitude.”
Ironically, trauma may be one of the most effective means of triggering appreciation. In our daily lives, we may become accustomed to “the way things are,” and that can cause us to overlook the small things we appreciate. “When you experience a traumatic event…you begin to notice simple blessings that you had previously taken for granted,” Philip says.
Exercises such as counting your blessings have also been shown to be effective in teaching appreciation. He says the more we learn about gratitude, the more we will learn how to cultivate it and use it as a tool for better health, happiness and longevity. “Gratitude has a variety of effects on us,” Sara says. “In the end, expressing gratitude builds a bridge to other people and invites them to cross it.”
Four Ways to Boost Gratitude
1. Keep a gratitude journal. Make a practice of writing down three to five things you are grateful for—every day—and explain why each one makes you grateful.
2. Count your blessings. Before going to sleep each night, call to mind one or two things you are grateful for.
3. Write a gratitude letter. Write a letter to someone in your present or past to whom you’re grateful.
4. Pay a gratitude visit. If you’ve written a gratitude letter or note, pay a visit to the person it’s directed to and read it aloud.
Paula Felps is the Science Editor for Live Happy.