Giving thanks is good for the person giving it as well as the one receiving it. So why don’t we express gratitude more often?
Importantly, the letter writers were asked to predict how surprised, happy and awkward the recipients would feel after receiving their gratitude. The researchers then followed up with the recipients to see how they reported feeling.
The gratitude expressers consistently underestimated how much people appreciate being appreciated. And the recipients of the letters found it significantly less awkward than the writers predicted. In short, receiving gratitude was far more likely to make someone’s day than the people giving them gratitude expected.
“In everyday life, we seem to not fully realize the magnitude of the impact that we’re having on other people,” said Amit Kumar, professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and an author of the study.
This miscalibrated expectation may be one potent reason we often do not express our gratitude more often, Kumar said. “Essentially, if you think you’re not going to be making that much of an impact, you might not actually bother to do so,” he said.
Why thanks isn’t given as often as it should be
Undervaluing gratitude’s effects on the receiver may be because of a mismatch in the perspectives between what the gratitude giver and receiver focus on. The words left unsaid and the thanks left ungiven may be because of these misconceptions.
Kumar and his colleagues found that the participants writing the gratitude letters were hung up on competence expressing their appreciation — was their letter articulate and eloquent enough?
But the people receiving those letters cared more about the feelings of interpersonal warmth and did not judge the writers as harshly on how the appreciation letter was written: They were happy simply for receiving gratitude in the first place.
“In some cases, this inordinate concern with competence can actually stand in the way of engaging in these sorts of actions,” Kumar said.
Intriguingly, participants in these research studies reported they want to perform these prosocial actions more often. But by undervaluing the benefits of sharing gratitude with the recipient, we build barriers to both our own well-being and that of those we care about.
Unfortunately, we do not often have opportunities to recalibrate our sense of how our appreciation impacted someone’s day, which may make it harder to overcome this “misplaced barrier.” This also means missing out on the benefits of expressing gratitude for ourselves; research consistently finds practices such as writing down what you are grateful for improves happiness and well-being.
Emerging social cognition research shows we have a bias toward “undersociality,” where we underestimate how positively others respond to our social outreach, extends to all manners of prosocial behavior, whether it is performing acts of kindness, asking for help or just striking up a conversation.
But making an active intention to give thanks when you feel grateful can make a difference.
Gratitude helps bind us together
“At the end of the day, it boils down to: most people want to be valued,” said Sara Algoe, psychologist who runs the Emotions and Social Interactions in Relationships Laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We need social relationships, we value social relationships, we crave being connected with other people.”
Gratitude is a unique catalyst for not only finding these connections but also strengthening them, Algoe said. The “find-remind-and-bind” theory proposes that feeling grateful helps us find new contacts, reminds us that current connections care about us, and binds us closer together.
In one 2022 study published in Scientific Reports involving 125 couples in a five-week field experiment, Algoe and her colleagues found that nudging one partner to express more gratitude led to more time spent together as a couple.
In the experiment, half of the couples had one person who was encouraged to express their gratitude whenever they felt grateful to their partner. The prompt was formulated to “really capitalize on people’s natural opportunities to experience gratitude and show them that there are these opportunities to express it and then have them make a plan to express it,” Algoe said.
The gratitude-expressing partner was also encouraged to keep this extra assignment a secret so that their appreciation would be received as more genuine. (Most partners kept the secret, but one did confess that they talked about the experiment as soon as they left the laboratory, Algoe said.)
Those encouraged to express thanks did share their gratitude with their partners more often; these couples increased the amount of time they spent together by an estimated 68 minutes a day on average, which represents more social investment and stronger social bonds.
“I think one of the big takeaways is that gratitude can contribute to well-being, and part of the reason that it contributes to well-being is because it helps us feel connected to other people,” Kumar said.
How to express gratitude
You likely have people in your life who you are grateful for. So how should you express this gratitude?
“The first thing is do it,” Algoe said. “Don’t forget that basic step. And don’t overthink it.”
You can also make it easier to express gratitude. Kumar said that after seeing the benefits of gratitude from his research, he began keeping a supply of thank-you cards on his desk to help him remember to express gratitude more often in his daily life.
Algoe suggests reframing the goal of what gratitude is for. She calls it putting the “you” in “thank you.”
“It’s subtle, this just turning it away from yourself and turning it toward them and what it was about their actions that were great,” she said.
Ultimately, just remind yourself that saying thank you really does make a difference.
“It’s not like a huge amount of effort,” Kumar said. But a small shift in how often you express thanks can make a “pretty big difference when it comes to how we feel and how we treat others.”
Do you have a question about human behavior or neuroscience? Email BrainMatters@washpost.com and we may answer it in a future column.
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