The Value of Gratitude

In a blog post on May 7th, I mentioned the value of gratitude in lasting relationships and said a longer post on gratitude was on the way. Well, here it is. And I want to point out that yet another post on gratitude is coming, indicating just how important I think gratitude is in lasting relationships.

Recent research suggests some interesting benefits of gratitude.  Keep in mind something we said when we talked about gratitude earlier-the important thing isn’t that gratitude is beneficial (of course it is), but rather how and why gratitude is beneficial to lasting relationships.

Sara Algoe and her colleagues studied the benefits of everyday gratitude.  That is, gratitude for things like picking up someone’s favorite coffee drink from Starbuck’s.  They found that perception that a partner engaged in thoughtful behavior led to feelings of gratitude, and gratitude led to increases in relationship satisfaction and feelings of connection.  Once again, interesting, but no huge surprise. The real benefit comes in understanding what is meant by the word “thoughtful.”  In other research, Algoe and her colleagues discovered that the cost of engaging in the thoughtful act was one factor.  The more effort it took for someone to do something nice for us the more likely we are to see it as thoughtful.  Another factor is the perception that the behavior was chosen specifically because it addressed our needs and desires.  It is not just that our partner gets us something from Starbuck’s; it is that our partner makes sure to get us the exact half-caff, no fat, double-mocha latte with whipped cream that is our favorite (OK, I admit it…I don’t know anything about Starbuck’s coffee drinks).  They didn’t just get us something; they got us the specific thing we like.

This article also points out one difficult element of thoughtful behavior.  Algoe and her colleagues report that “Of the days when the partner reported doing something thoughtful, the participant agreed 51.2% of the time; 48.8% of the partner-reported thoughtful behaviors went undetected by the participant” (p.223).  Yikes.  Half of the time that a person did something thoughtful, it went undetected by their partner.  Do you see trouble brewing? (Get it, trouble brewing? Ha ha. Think back to the coffee example.) Anyway, if I do something thoughtful for my partner but they don’t notice, I am likely to feel a little resentment.  If this happens repeatedly I can imagine it leading to decreases in relationship satisfaction.

So, what do to? First, we can all agree that doing thoughtful things for your partner is a key element of relationship satisfaction.  But if you do something nice for your partner and they don’t notice, what are you going to do?  Feeling resentment is not a good solution.  Either you have to accept that it is not important for them to recognize every nice thing you do.  After all, you didn’t do it for some reward—you did it out of love and a desire to please your partner.  Or second, you need to find a positive way to raise the issue with your partner. You might do it directly by saying “When I do nice things for you I sometimes feel that you don’t appreciate them.” Or maybe you could try it indirectly.  Later in the day, after you have done something thoughtful, perhaps after you have just gotten into bed for the night, you could say “I hope you liked the coffee drink I brought you today.  I really like doing nice things for you.”  Doing this from time to time may help your partner do a better job of recognizing your thoughtful behavior.  Or maybe it just helps them understand that you like it when they express their gratitude for your thoughtful acts.  And it might also make it more likely that you get a little Starbuck’s coffee sometime too.

In case you are interested…..

Algoe, S. B., Gable, S. L., & Maisel, N. C. (2010).  It’s the little things: Everyday gratitude as a booster shot for relationships. Personal Relationships, 17, 217-233.

About Alan Strathman

Alan has spent 24 years as a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. He is the founder of HelpingRelationshipsLast.com and contributes content regularly through blog posts and e-books that communicates the findings of psychological research on relationships. If you would like more information about Alan, please visit alanstrathman.com.