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How Science Says You Should Express Your Gratitude

The health benefits of gratitude

We know that having strong social connections is a lifestyle factor that is  closely associated with health and longevity. Most of us also understand, at least at an intuitive level, that expressing gratitude for someone’s actions can play a powerful role in solidifying our relationship with them.

It signals to them that we value the relationship. It is also a motivator for prosocial behavior because, when we experience gratitude, we are motivated to reciprocate when the opportunity arises in the future.

But we all have been in situations where our expression of gratitude to someone falls short of the intended effect. Until now, there has been very little research on thewayin which gratitude is expressed can affect the perception of the person receiving it (i.e., the benefactor).

Thankfully, a research team in the Psychology Department at the University of Toronto set out to determine precisely how different ways of expressing gratitude are received by others.

How to convey gratitude

The result was  this study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. What the researchers found is thathow you convey your gratitude can elicit very different responses by the receiving party. Specifically, the team zeroed in on two key ways of expressing gratitude:

(1) conveying how the benefactor’s actions met the recipients’ needs (responsiveness-highlighting); and

(2) acknowledging the sacrifice incurred by the benefactor to perform the action (cost-highlighting).

The study involved a community sample of 111 couples who completed an online questionnaire and were brought into a lab to participate in a conversation study. All participants engaged in conversations about three different topics.

The final conversation was a gratitude conversation in which each person was instructed to talk about something nice or kind that their partner had done that made them feel particularly thankful or appreciative.

Participants were also asked to keep a daily log of their feelings about their relationship.

A Clear Winner

What the researchers found is that acknowledging the degree to which the benefactor’s act was responsive to the recipient’s needs, rather than the degree to which it was costly, was the primary contributor to the positive effects that gratitude expressions had on the benefactor.

As per the study:

“The more the speaker highlighted the benefactor’s responsiveness in their gratitude, the more positively the listener felt about the gratitude expression and globally about their relationship. The speaker’s responsiveness-highlighting gratitude expressions were also associated with lower negative relationship quality.”

It seems that people prefer to hear how their actions met a person’s specific needs over being acknowledged for the trouble they had to go through to perform that action. According to the study’s conclusions: 

“[B]enefactors are satisfied to learn that what they did met their partner’s needs precisely because their behavior was motivated by a concern for their partner’s welfare.” 

In other words, people respond better when we validate their importance in the relationship over the specific effort they undertook.

Interestingly, the effect seems to work both ways, meaning that the participants who expressed their gratitude by highlighting their partners’ responsiveness in turn felt more positively about their relationship: 

“[O]ur findings suggest that it may be as important for the [recipient] to clearly communicate how responsive the benefactor has been.”

What you can do

With Thanksgiving around the corner, this is a perfect opportunity for you to test these findings in a real setting with people who are close to you. Frame your gratitude around the impact others’ actions had on your needs, rather than the effort it took them to take those actions, and hang back to see how your close ones react. Let us know if it worked, and Happy Thanksgiving!

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