Want to Feel Better? Show Some Gratitude.
During the course of a day or week, we probably count express gratitude or thanks to someone or for something at least a handful of times – to our coworker for baking muffins, to our spouse for handling a chore, to Mother Nature for a sunny day to work in the garden, or simply acknowledging that we’re thankful to be healthy, happy, and safe.
Expressing gratitude has become trendy; these days, you can easily find a stock of gratitude journals and notebooks at your local stationery store or bookseller, or search for tips on how to express gratitude in your life.
Gratitude: It Does Your Body Good
As it turns out, all this expression of gratitude is a good thing for our minds and bodies. In a new article in the Review of Communication, authors Stephen M. Yoshimura and Kassandra Berzins explore the connection between gratitude expression and psychological and physical well-being; as one might expect, positivity begets positive results for our well-being.
The authors acknowledge the obvious: “Gratitude consistently associates with many positive social, psychological, and health states, such as an increased likelihood of helping others, optimism, exercise, and reduced reports of physical symptoms.” They argue that not enough research has been done on the communication of gratitude and its effect on well-being, and they propose further avenues for analysis of gratitude messages and their impact.
Expressions of gratitude are often a response to others’ acts of generosity – some scholars label gratitude as a “relational value, emerging as a function of the interaction and relationship between two individuals.” If you receive a gift from someone, or an act of kindness, you reciprocate by showing gratitude, sometimes publicly, to highlight the giver’s altruistic act. The authors suggest that gratitude is different from happiness because it so often stems from the actions of another individual. “To experience it, one must receive a message, and interpret the message,” they write.
Gratitude consistently associates with many positive social, psychological, and health states
Do Good, Show Good, Feel Good
Numerous studies show that trait gratitude (defined as a holistic inclination toward perceptions of appreciation and abundance) is associated with psychological well-being and increased positive states such as life satisfaction, vitality, hope, and optimism. Moreover, it contributes to decreased levels of depression, anxiety, envy, and job-related stress and burnout. Perhaps most intriguing is that people who experience and express gratitude have reported fewer symptoms of physical illness, more exercise, and better quality of sleep. Who wouldn’t be grateful for that?
According to the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions, positive emotions push us to seek out new experiences, people, and activities. The authors expand on this theory and suggest that “gratitude promotes social relationships by giving grateful people an appearance of warmth and responsiveness, increasing their trust in others, and motivating them to approach and bond with their benefactors.” Further, gratitude can help people find high-quality relationship partners and more frequently use gratitude expression to bind current relationships. Ultimately, gratitude expression can lead to greater long-term relationship satisfaction because of the reciprocity of social support and responsiveness it generates.
Yoshimura and Berzins note that the verbal and nonverbal messages we use to communicate gratitude vary widely– and that they can be hard to distinguish from other emotion-laden expressions of affection, compassion, politeness, or kindness. The authors contend that messages of gratitude uniquely contain “altercentric, relationship-oriented content regarding appreciation for something the sender perceives as valuable having been granted, expressed with nonverbal immediacy and indicators of responsiveness.” In other words, it’s more than just saying “thanks”; the “presence of other codes” give expressions of gratitude their distinct meaning.
Adding in contextual clues of understanding, validation, caring, joint outcomes, and personal perspective is what makes an expression of gratitude stand apart from general appreciation. According to the authors, nonverbal immediacy is an important element, too. When someone is shown that they are appreciated or valued by means of touching, mutual eye gaze, smiling, “gratitude expressions become more recognizable and effective.” An immediate “kthx” text message might work for some people, the authors say, but what’s more effective are messages that include “elaborated linguistic and nonverbal content indicative of how important the person and the relationship are to the individual.”
Keep the Good Going
While the immediate effects of gratitude expression are clear, the authors argue that it also contributes to long-term success in relationships and personal well-being – “up to six months after a deliberate expression to one’s relationship’s partner.” Just as we periodically boost our immune systems through vaccines, we can boost our relationships and mental state by appearing grateful toward our partners on a regular basis. To that end, the authors say that “social connectedness, perhaps through the increased willingness and ability to communicate gratitude, could serve as a recommendable health practice.”
The authors provide several suggestions for further research on communicating gratitude to help connect gratitude expression to relationship construction and individual well-being. There’s much to explore; examples include examining frequency and style of gratitude expressions, the types of events and messages that trigger them, and what other interpersonal relationship functions may be served by them.