When we were children, we were told that “please” and “thank you” were “magic words.” Indeed, they are. These days it seems like there is a palpable decline in what used to be common activity as it relates to socially appropriate behavior. And now, more than ever, expressing gratitude can go a long way towards helping someone feel happier.
There is actually science that clearly supports both how we as a culture tend to undervalue the importance of demonstrating gratitude as well as how it positively affects the recipient. And that is unfortunate because we know that the expression of gratitude improves the well-being of both the expresser as well as the recipient. So, if expressions of gratitude are such powerful tonics, why don’t we do more of them?
It’s a great question and it was recently explored by researchers at The University of Chicago. In their study, the researchers conducted experiments in which participants wrote gratitude letters and then predicted how the recipients of these letters would feel. In the abstract of the study, the authors indicated:
Expressers significantly underestimated how surprised recipients would be about why expressers were grateful, overestimated how awkward recipients would feel, and underestimated how positive recipients would feel. Expected awkwardness and mood were both correlated with participants’ willingness to express gratitude. Wise decisions are guided by an accurate assessment of the expected value of action. Underestimating the value of prosocial actions, such as expressing gratitude, may keep people from engaging in behavior that would maximize their own—and others’—well-being.
Essentially, what the research showed is that we generally tend to underestimate the powerful impact that expressing gratitude has on another person. And at the same time, we may be reluctant to do so because we erroneously believe that the recipient of our gratitude expression will feel awkward when receiving our message.
It is a very helpful practice to pause each day and think about various things for which we are grateful. Many people find it helpful to keep a “gratitude journal” as a way of enhancing this behavior. But beyond just personally recognizing our gratitude, its outward expression, directed to a recipient, be they an individual or group, brings a benefit to them in terms of well-being. And this is a nice way of returning the favor.