How to give thanks and feel good

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Imagine your alarm clock starts ringing at 7:05 a.m., screeching that it’s time to get up for work. You roll out of bed, forcing yourself to throw off the covers and shivering as your feet hit the cold floor. The commute takes too long, and the moment you get to the office, you are faced with a full day’s worth of emails. You feel miserable, and wish it would all just go away.

But imagine if it did.

Imagine that instead of waking up early for work, you don’t have a job to go to. Instead of having to roll out of bed, you wake up on a sidewalk. Rather than being faced with a day of emails, you have to risk your life working on a submerged oil rig. How grateful would you be to have the alarm clock, the cold bedroom floor, and the emails, back?

In an experiment, people who underwent this imagination exercise gave a resounding: very grateful[1].

The moral here is that we are surrounded by opportunities to feel grateful, but much of the time we don’t. That’s because we get used to the good things in life, and focus instead on the day-to-day annoyances.

This means we’re missing out on the happiness that gratitude brings—as well as its other benefits[2]:

  • Better coping with stress and change
  • Greater willingness to help others
  • More meaningful social bonds

Given these benefits, researchers have designed a variety of ways to help us experience gratitude on a more regular basis. Usually this involves reflecting on the good parts of your life—for instance, by keeping a daily diary of all the things you are thankful for[3].

The good news is that these interventions work—especially if you’re someone who tends to be less happy[4]. The bad news is that, for many people, the benefits are fleeting[5,6].

Is there a way to become grateful, and stay that way?

Yes. The intervention with the longest-lasting benefits involves writing a letter of gratitude to someone in your life whom you haven’t thanked enough, and then giving the letter to that person. Doing so has been shown to increase letter writers’ happiness for more than a month[7].

The key here is to express your gratitude. As you might imagine, this expression has benefits beyond the lift you get from saying something nice to another person.

For example, managers who say “thank you” to hard-working employees motivate those employees to work even harder[8]. On a more personal level, couples who express gratitude to each other report more love and honesty in their relationships[9].

Most interestingly, gratitude appears to beget more gratitude.

For instance, when you express gratitude toward your romantic partner, they’re more likely to express their gratitude toward you[9]. And gratitude in the workplace appears to be contagious, as expressions of gratitude are reciprocated and “paid forward” to others[10,11].

So, if you want to feel good, stay that way, and improve the mood of others, tell those you appreciate how grateful you are to have them in your life. This can create a self-reinforcing cycle of good feelings and gratitude.

References

1. Otake, K., Shimai, S., Tanaka-Matsumi, J., Otsui, K., & Fredrickson, B.L. (2006). Happy people become happier through kindness: A counting kindnesses intervention. Journal of Happiness studies, 7, 361-375.

2. Lyubomisrsky, S. (2007). The how of happiness: A new approach to getting the life you want.

3. Emmons, R.A., & McCullough, M.E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of personality and social psychology, 84, 377.

4. 
Kashdan, T.B., Mishra, A., Breen, W.E., & Froh, J.J. (2009). Gender differences in gratitude: Examining appraisals, narratives, the willingness to express emotions, and changes in psychological needs. Journal of personality, 77, 691-730.

5. Davis, D.E., Choe, E., Meyers, J., Wade, N., Varjas, K., Gifford, A., … & Worthington Jr, E.L. (2016). Thankful for the little things: A meta-analysis of gratitude interventions. Journal of Counseling Psychology.

6. Wood, A.M., Froh, J.J., & Geraghty, A. W. (2010). Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical psychology review, 30, 890-905.

7. Seligman, M.E., Steen, T.A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. American psychologist, 60, 410.

8. Toler, S. (2016). Outstanding Leadership. Harvest House Publishers.

9. Gordon, A.M., Impett, E.A., Kogan, A., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2012). To have and to hold: gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds. Journal of personality and social psychology, 103, 257.

10. Tsang, J. (2006). Gratitude and prosocial behaviour: An experimental test

11. Waters, L. (2012). Predicting job satisfaction: Contributions of individual gratitude and institutionalized gratitude. Psychology, 3, 1174.