Did you know that over two thirds of happy experiences are relationship oriented? Gratitude is the feeling we experience when we perceive ourselves as the recipient of an intentional gift from another. In many ways, it is the ultimate positive emotion, and for most people, it expands their sense of well-being and belongingness. Very happy people have happier memories of events and have more highly satisfying relationships with friends, romantic partners, and family members.
Kindness, Gratitude and Happiness
In our everyday life, we depend on reciprocity, the responsiveness of others to our needs. Some people benefit more from this than others. Happy people feel more grateful when on the receiving end of kindness and are more motivated to be kind, to recognize kindness in others, and to enact kind behaviors in their own daily life. The active “tending and befriending” of others leads to an upward spiral of appreciating and reciprocating kindnesses and gratitude. This is the foundation of our relationships and well-being.
In recent gratitude studies, researchers have looked at the value of gratitude among different populations. It appears that men and women, for example, do not have the same experience of gratitude, and that women may have higher trait gratitude, that is, they are naturally more grateful. Men on the other hand, recognize that they have received a gift of some sort but may in addition feel indebted to the giver. This may be exacerbated by cultural influences and may help explain why women who do kind things for some men don’t receive a reciprocal response from them.
Gratitude and Human Development
Gratitude building starts early. Since gratitude is a developmental emotion, the social skills that we teach children help to develop it. Very young children learn that people are grateful for socially desired behaviors and this makes kids willing to behave better most of the time. Praising and thanking a child for desired behaviors is more effective, of course, than punishment. Preschoolers will express gratitude with prompting from an adult, but only a small percentage of these children will spontaneously do so. Those who do so we recognize not only as well mannered, but also socially and emotionally more mature than their younger peers.
In studies with grade schoolers, children ten years old or older expressed gratitude more than 80% of the time compared to a tiny fraction of six-year-olds. If your children don’t like writing thank you letters, stick with it. It may be that they don’t enjoy the writing, or the gift, but it may also be that they just aren’t feeling that grateful — yet.
In surveys of school-aged populations, girls tend to be most grateful for interpersonal relationships and boys tend to be most grateful for their material possessions. Further, the indebtedness that some boys feel when a kindness is bestowed upon them may actually keep them from feeling gratitude while they avoid a sense of obligation and even guilt. In a lab setting, people who were induced to feel grateful felt higher life satisfaction and lower desire for more material goods. When participants were induced to feel envious of others’ possessions, however, they experienced higher materialism. It’s hard to feel grateful, of course, when you focus on people’s stuff instead of them. Remember this the next time you are being bombarded (or stealthily seduced) by advertising.
Gratitude and Relationship Building
Fortunately, among both boys and girls, adolescents who are more grateful regularly have higher subjective well-being, optimism, prosocial behavior, and social support. That’s because gratitude promotes relationship formation and its maintenance. When people are kind to us, it shows that they are responding to our whole self, our likes or dislikes, our needs, and our preferences. Gratitude makes both the giver and the receiver happy. In fact, among young women, the more effort it is perceived went into a kindness, the more gratitude the recipient often feels. Relationships built in this way encourage people to create meaningful experiences for others.
Another finding about gratitude that can particularly benefit adolescents is that feeling grateful before bed leads to improved sleep. Feeling grateful before bedtime positively affects sleep quality and one’s sense of refreshment upon waking. Since gratitude also mediates sleep quality and good sleep quality reduces daytime distraction, feeling grateful may contribute to more time on task.
You Can Experience More Gratitude
The experience of gratitude prevents us from doing things that would be destructive to our relationships. It helps us experience happiness, hope, pride, and optimism, lets us be in a positive mood more often, feel self-actualized, and have a sense of community. In a school setting, gratitude is related to both academic and school success as well as overall school satisfaction. How can we practice gratitude? Three easy and effective ways include:
- Write a letter of gratitude to someone and delivering it in person to share your gratefulness.
- Keep a gratitude journal. See my article here for more on this.
- Keep a “counting your kindnesses” journal. Noticing the number and the ways you are kind makes you both happier and more likely to do even more kind things that set up the positive relationship cycle.
Make yourself happier and make the world a better place. As you go into the world today, remember to tend and befriend, as well as to appreciate and reciprocate!
Algoe, S.B., Haidt, J., & Gable, S.L.. (2008). Beyond reciprocity: Gratitude and relationships in everyday life. Emotion. 8(3): 425-429.
Froh, J.J., Yurkewicz, C., Kashdan, T.B. (2009). Gratitude and subjective well-being in early adolescence: Examining gender differences. Journal of Adolescence, 32: 633-650.
Froh, J.J., Kashdan, T.B., Ozimkowski, K.M., & Miller, N. (2009). Who benefits the ost from a gratitude intervention in children and adolescents? Examining gratitude as a moderator. The Journal of Positive Psychology. 4(5): 408-422.
Froh, J.J., Sefick, W.J., & Emmons, R.A. (2007). Counting blessings in early adolescents: An experimental study of gratitude and subjective well-being. Journal of School Psychology. 46: 213-233.
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.
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.
Wood, A.M., Joseph, S., Lloyd, J., & Atkins, S. (2009). Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions. Journal of Psychosomatic Research. 66: 43-48.
“Thank you” sign courtesy of psd
“Good game” by woodleywonderworks
The L train courtesy of Unkle_Cheese
I am married to one of the most grateful persons I’ve ever known and I can testify to two other side benefits you mention in your excellent article: she sleeps like a baby and has a P/N ratio way above the Losada line. The only problem is that I am not as grateful as she is and oftentimes I find myself awake in the middle of the night. Counting sheep or anything else doesn’t help, so I am going to follow your advice and count my blessings instead.
I have been trying the late-night blessings approach myself since reading this study. I’m glad you are married to someone who is so grateful. You must bring lots of value to the marriage, too. Does being thanked make you feel obligated or wanting to reciprocate?
Good question, Sherri. I believe I am more of the reciprocating kind of guy. What do you thik the difference is between feeling obligated or reciprocating? Why did you ask the question?
I ask because men were more likely than women to feel indebted when they were the recipient of a kindness rather than feeling gratitude. It made them less likely to reciprocate (be kind back). If your spouse is the grateful reciprocating type and you are used to receiving kindnesses, and are a man (!) you would be more likely to feel indebted, according to the gender research.
Indebtedness does not increase well-being. I think there is an important relationship lesson in this. I couldn’t help thinking of Mel Gibson in “What Women Want”. He only “gets it” when he can read Helen Hunt’s mind. This could be unpacked many ways, of course. Is indebtedness related to ANTS like “sounds like too much organization to me” or “she won’t like anything I get anyway”??
Reciprocating in the Algoe-Haidt-Gable research was something the women in the study wanted to do, and it made for cycles of give-take-give. 🙂
Thanks so much, Sherri. Very interesting and illuminating. I am glad I am not the typical indebted male.
thanks for your great article. It’s lovely to be reminded quite how important gratitude is to our relationships.
As regards chidlren and gratitude letters – yes, we can make them stick at it. Alternatively we can try to find out how that child naturally wants to express gratitude and encourage them to do that. We could ask them to think of a time something happened they felt really grateful for, and ask what they felt like doing then.
We know very little about how children of different ages spontaneously express gratitude. I’m a big fan of asking them.
thanks again for all your articles. I love reading them.
Your suggestions are spot on. I agree about finding what works naturally for kids and working from there. I was following the line of thinking from the research, however, that says gratitude, at least as it is conceptualized and operationalized by adults, is not yet developed in young kids. I like the idea of interdisciplinary research here, with child development researchers and gratitude researchers extending what we know. It is one more way to use the “appreciative” approach 🙂
What does the research say about why men seem to feel indebted if someone shows them an act of kindness and why women feel the opposite way? Has anyone tried to explain why this is a difference or is it simply a “men are from mars women are from venus” type thing? I have seen this in my own life however where just because a man does something for a woman then she owes him somehow. I suppose that stems from the mentality you were talking about where men feel indebted if given something so as a result if men give something away than the receiver is indebted to them. Obviously women do not always see it that way.
I noticed you listed the “gratitude journal” at the end of the article. We kept a gratitude journal as part of an exercise for a class I am attending. What troubled me was that I had a very difficult time coming up with things that I was grateful for. Part of this was because I continuously attributed every good thing throughout the day to an action of my own.
In the text we are using for that class, it states that this is a common issue among people. However, you’ve mentioned a lot of gender differences when it comes to expressing/experiencing gratitude. Is there a link to gender and whether you attribute the good things in life internally or externally?
I’m not sure exactly what you mean or whether this particular set of studies addresses your question. Gratitude is what we feel when someone has done something kind, and perhaps at some cost to him or herself, for us. I think there is lots of opportunity for missed signals as you suggest in your comment. What you describe does not sound like kindness in giving, so gratitude in returning a favor does not apply. I take it you are talking about a man who does something for a woman and expects something in return. The man does not sound like an altruistic giver in this case.
Feeling vulnerable to another person can make us want to keep our feelings hidden. The openness with which study participants (Kashdan, et. al. (2009)expressed emotions was at least partially attributable to gender, with women being more open.
I think there is a difference between the kind of journal you are keeping and gratitude as a construct in these studies. In the “Three Blessings” exercise you are asked to answer three questions, with the last one asking what you had to do with the good event. That might be why you are stuck there. Try priming or reframing. I think you might shift your thinking by noticing random or undeserved good things you have experienced. It might be a beautiful day, or a particularly attentive server at a restaurant, or letting someone give you “cuts” in a long line of traffic.
I ask my students these three questions for their “good things” journal. I have not found that the answers to these questions are gender specific, and it is a way to integrate strengths, savoring, and gratitude.
–What happened? (Turn on your noticing/appreciating gear. )
–What was good about it? (Why did you think/feel it was good? Can you connect to your strengths? Values?)
–Why did it happen? (Can you make it happen again? Is it something special to savor that might be a once-in-a-lifetime event?)
I am currently conducting a research project on people’s ability to take in gratitude from others. When people do the impact is immense, but I find people really struggle to experience others gratitude. I am curious your thoughts on this, I find it fascinating.
Great article on gratitude. I am curious though if the difference of indebtedness is cross cultural. It is also interesting that according to the research, the feeling of indebtedness reduces the feeling of gratitude. I am curious to why that is. Because as an American male, I definitely do feel a sense of “owing someone back” if they did something kind for me. The first thought for that is due to a desire to keep things fair–if you scratch my back it is only fair that I scratch yours. Yet for some reason this does not diminish the deep feeling of thankfulness that comes from someone doing something nice for me.
Another suggestion you might try to increase your feelings of gratitude is to try to change your orientation/assumption.
For example, because I am of the orientation that if it weren’t for empathic and kind people in the world, the natural universe at large is mostly harsh and unforgiving. Compounding that perception with the idea that no one in this world, not even my parents owe me anything at all (just think about all the horrible parents that do exist in the world), my concluding feeling is one of feeling forever grateful for anything they, or anyone does for me.
Can you tell me more about the idea of taking in gratitude from others?
I imagine that there is lots of work to be done in cross-cultural research. I read a Japanese study referenced above that found that happier people become happier through kindness, and gratitude for the kindnesses set up a cycle of positive emotion a la Barbara Fredrickson’s “Broaden and Build” Theory.
Do you suppose that in collectivist cultures the importance of honor and filial piety would be an important part of the gratitude v. indebtedness approach in returning favors?
Thanks for sharing your reframing example above!
Fortunately I’ve had the luck to read about Frederickson’s Broaden and Build theory due to my being in T. Kashdan’s Science of Wellbeing, and if one had that type of gratitude orientation I can definitely see how that could feed into a sustainable cycle of positive emotion.
I neglected to mention that I am bi-cultural (Taiwanese American), and while I’ve been here since I was one, I also retain parts of my parent’s culture. This includes my exposure to Buddhism, which definitely influenced by perception regarding gratitude.
Now I can’t speak for those in Taiwan, China, Japan, or other parts of Asia that have Buddhism a major religion, but given that the version of Buddhism I was exposed to had a great emphasis on possessing gratitude for all things, I can see how that would modify the indebtedness to include feelings of gratitude as well.
Unfortunately because I did not grow up in any part of Asia, I can’t say for sure whether cultures that espouse ideals such as honor and the such would change indebtedness for males.
Perhaps another reader who has grown up in collectivist cultures would have greater anecdotal evidence?
Great article. The importance of gratitude cannot be underestimated.
Have you heard about a book called NatureShock, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. In the conclusion they talk a lot about the research that has been done on gratitude and children. It seems that beyond thank you notes, gratitude, how it is learned, understood and integrated into children and teens is fascinating. I highly recommend the whole book, but definitely check out the conclusion. I think it will challenge assumptions and make oneyou realize just how sophisticated true adult (male and female, in their different incarnations) gratitude really is.
i liked your article a lot. it is a useful reminder to us all. On the gender thing: i’m reminded that girls typically reward by inclusion and punish with exclusion while boys more typically are concerned with hierarchy–i.e. who is up’ and who is ‘down’ rather than who is ‘in’ or ‘out’. This may be linked to the pattern you mention, because if you give you something you could be seen to put yourself up and me down (in debt). By saying thanks I accept the ‘down’ status. [Similarly, i’m told that the Japenses ‘arigato’ both means ‘thank you’ and ‘you have overwhelmed me with obligation’.] this is not meant to dispute the point you are making at all, but may explain some of the variation…
keep writing your great articles,
Thanks for the book suggestion! I’ll check it out 🙂
I’m glad you enjoyed the read. The inclusion/exclusion with girls is very powerful. I wonder if there isn’t a sense of obligation there, too? If a lower status girl permeates the group membrane, the relief coupled with anxiety that she feels is not just gratitude…
Thanks for the cross-cultural thoughts, too. I have an antique tea set originally given to my great-grandparents as a “gift of obligation” by a Chinese couple who visited them in their home long ago. The words seem to mean something different than gratitude, but it is all in the (social) translation. Fascinating!
Why do you think it is that men tend to feel indebted to someone when they are given a gift or receive a simple act of kindness? My father is the nicest person in the world but he definitely has this attribute.
Thanks for the great article. I am currently taking a Positive Psychology course and have been amazed by the effect that reflecting on gratitude has had. I have done the gratitude letter and journal as you mentioned. Your comment about feelings of gratitude before bed is so true. In continuing to do a gratitude journal at bedtime I generally sleep better and wake up with a more positive attitude.
I apprecitate your insight!
This was a very appropriate article before Thanksgiving and shows us that we should be grateful throughout the year as well. Concerning the gender differences of gratitude, I have a couple questions.
First, because males feel indebted when the recipient of an act of kindness, does this mean that they do not feel gratitude at all? Or do they feel some gratitude and are unable to express it? If the first is the case, do these men show gratitude only because it is socially accepted or not at all?
Second, you also said that males are most grateful when receiving material possessions. Does the indebted feeling only come with acts of kindness or was it also seen when males were given material possessions?
Thank you so much!
You wrote: “two thirds of happy experiences are relationship oriented.”
How interesting! Could you please tell me where you found this statistic?
The following article has the information you seek:
Algoe, S.B., Haidt, J., & Gable, S.L.. (2008). Beyond reciprocity: Gratitude and relationships in everyday life. Emotion. 8(3): 425-429.