Need a boost in your romantic relationship? A dose of gratitude may do the trick, according to Dr. Sara Algoe of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Gratitude is an emotion experienced in acknowledgement of an intentionally provided benefit, especially if the benefit is perceived as personally important and responsive to one’s needs and preferences. It is thought that gratitude enhances social relationships by broadening our attention to people who care about our welfare. In fact, early research on gratitude1 has shown that compared to happiness, gratitude made people recall more positive qualities of a benefactor, feel closer to the benefactor, and desire to spend more time with that person in the future.
On the flip side of gratitude lurks indebtedness, the feeling of obligation to repay someone for a benefit that he or he has provided. While an individual may experience either gratitude or indebtedness after having received a benefit, only gratitude is associated with positive emotions; in fact, indebtedness is linked to negative emotions such as guilt.1 Indebtedness drives people to resolve a debt in order to feel better but unlike gratitude, does not facilitate communal relationships.
Algoe and her collaborators hypothesized that because gratitude reminds an individual of his or her feelings toward a partner and inspires mutual responsiveness, it will strengthen interpersonal bonding. In this way, gratitude should serve as a “booster shot” for the relationship.
In the study, romantic partners independently completed nightly diaries to record their own and their partner’s thoughtful actions, emotional responses to interactions with their partner, and relationship well-being that day. As expected, thoughtful behaviors predicted feelings of gratitude, which in turn increased feelings of relationship satisfaction and connection. Moreover, it did not matter whether people actually reported doing something kind for their partner – as long as the partner perceived caring behaviors and responded with gratitude on a given day, the benefactor got a boost from the appreciation and both partners appraised the relationship more positively overall. “A key question for relationships research is to understand how happy couples stay happy,2” Algoe said. “Because we were able to show increases in relationship evaluations from one day to the next, experiencing gratitude toward a partner on a given day may be one of the answers.”
Feelings of indebtedness, on the other hand, did not predict participants’ relationship well-being. “The ‘booster shot’ effects were only found for gratitude,” Algoe explains. “This is illuminating because people sometimes mistakenly think these two emotional states are and do the same thing. This error has historically short-changed us on our understanding of gratitude because gratitude research has been based in theory about indebtedness2.”
Algoe argues that continued research on gratitude is valuable because, like other positive emotions, it is thought to be adaptive from an evolutionary standpoint, helping us to “find, remind, and bind” ourselves to people who care about us. The study’s findings forecast opportunities for helping people to improve their romantic relationships and open the door for exploring the effects of gratitude in non-romantic contexts, such as how it influences motivation and decision making.
Gratitude seems to have uniquely predictive power in relationship promotion, serving to remind us of a partner’s good qualities and helping people reconnect. Even in already-solid relationships, a little appreciation goes a long way toward maintaining those relationships. Recognizing your partner’s thoughtful deeds with a heartfelt “thank you” is perhaps the easiest pill you’ll have to swallow to keep your relationship healthy.
Republished from Carolina Scientific by permission of the author.
1Algoe, S. B., Gable, S. L., & Maisel, N. C. (2010). It’s the little things: Everyday gratitude as a booster shot for romantic relationships. Personal Relationships, 17, 217-233. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.01273.x
2Email with Sara Algoe, 9/27/11.
Dr. Jana Rosewarne – Articles
Jana’s research interests include close relationships and positive emotions. She is most interested in the impact of individual-level variables and interpersonal behavior on personal well-being and optimal relationship functioning.