An Attitude Of Gratitude
Research in Positive Psychology has consistently found that having a grateful disposition is associated with many well-being advantages including better health, lower risk of illness, improved performance in a variety of domains and enhanced spirituality, morality and better relationships. There are a number of techniques aimed at enhancing gratitude such as counting your blessings, writing gratitude letters, carrying out a gratitude visit and keeping a gratitude journal. Practicing these techniques aids the cultivation of an increased “attitude of gratitude” and research has shown that such changes are associated with improvements in well-being. So being thankful is good for you, you can train yourself to get better at it regardless of how thankful you are in the first place, and it all adds up to good news for your long term health and well-being. Of course no one can be grateful about everything all of the time. For a start that would be just annoying! But seriously being grateful is not about ignoring the gripes and problems of life, in fact it’s not good for your well-being to do so, as that could lead to avoiding necessary action. However, being able to be appreciative of what is good in life, in spite of the challenges, is a useful skill in promoting well-being.
Thankfulness Close To Home
One area, in particular, where a regular gratitude practice can make a difference is in close personal relationships. We all, at times, moan to our friends about our partner, children, parents, siblings, pets etc. There is nothing wrong with that, it’s an important means of processing emotions and gaining support and perspective. However, how often do we really stop to think about what we are truly grateful for in these people who make up our closest interactions? It’s so easy to take them for granted because we see them all the time and habituate to their presence and the things they are and do in our lives.
The Functions Of Gratitude In Close Relationships
Research indicates that both the experience and the expression of gratitude in ongoing relationships have important functions in maintaining the relationship. Feeling appreciative of one’s partner has been shown to lead to noticing new positive qualities in them, spending more time with them and being more willing to compromise or make sacrifices for them. Feeling appreciated leads to more relationship maintenance behaviours which signal responsiveness, engagement and commitment to the relationship leading to the other partner feeling appreciated, and facilitating a positive feedback loop, promoting an upward cycle of relationship growth, commitment and stability. (Gordon, Oveis, Impett, kogan & Keltner 2012, Algoe 2012). Of course the responsiveness of one’s partner has an important impact but working to enhance your own feelings and expressions of gratitude within a relationship can kickstart this positive cycle and provide a booster shot for your relationship (Algoe, Gable & Maisel 2010). Indeed in long term relationships, one’s own internal sense of gratitude towards a partner has been shown to predict the partner’s experience of marital satisfaction over time as well as one’s own (Gordon, Arnette & Smith 2011). Gratitude practices also enhance mindfulness of what is good in the relationship and increase access to positive memories which can influence how you feel in the here and now.
It’s Not All About The Positive
Responses to gratitude exercises are not all positive. My own experiences of gratitude journaling with particular reference to my marital relationship, also involved feelings of regret, sadness and indebtedness for the times I had taken my husband for granted or behaved in ways which hurt him. But processing these feelings also contributed to a sense of connectedness and motivation to work on improving the relationship in the future. Indeed Layous, Sweeny, Armenta, Na, Choi & Lyubomirsky (2017) suggest that such bittersweet responses to gratitude practices are a necessary fuel for motivation influencing the downstream effects of gratitude in promoting relationship growth.
You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Until It’s Gone
A further cognitive effect of engaging in a gratitude practice is that it tends to lead you to think about what your life would be like without the people close to you. This counterfactual thinking promotes appreciation for those we spend most time with by enhancing novelty thus reducing taking their presence for granted. I found that this technique helped me to appreciate that if my teenage son was no longer at home, I might actually miss picking his washing up off the floor. I also admit to feeling some satisfaction that if he was no longer at home, he might appreciate that he had taken for granted that his washing got done! However, In the moment, an experience of irritation was transformed through counterfactual thinking to one of appreciation and amusement.
Count Your Blessings
We can all benefit from developing our sense of thankfulness and this can be especially important for the health of our close relationships. If the family togetherness of Christmas and the roses of Valentine’s Day have faded, maybe it’s time to remind yourself what you most appreciate about the people closest to you?
Algoe, S.B. (2012). Find, Remind and Bind: The Functions of Gratitude in Everyday Relationships. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 6(6), 455-469.
Algoe, 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.
Gordon, C.L., Arnette, R.A.M. & Smith, R.E. (2011). Have you thanked your spouse today?; Felt and expressed gratitude among married couples. Personality and Individual Differences, 50, 339-343.
Gordon, A.M., Oveis, C., Impett, E.A., Kogan, A & Keltner, D. (2012). To Have and to Hold: Gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(2), 257-274.
Layous, K., Sweeny, K., Armenta, C., Na, S., Choi, I. & Lyubomirsky, S. (2017). The proximal experience of gratitude. PLos ONE, 12(7) e0179123.
About the Author: Sarah Monk
‘We Are The Positive Psychology People’