You read a lot these days about research showing that practicing gratitude — making a deliberate point of being grateful for the good things in your life — has all sorts of benefits for happiness and well-being. These articles usually end with a call to start a gratitude journal to reap the full benefits of being thankful.
There’s nothing wrong with that. But we should keep in mind gratitude’s other, arguably even more important purpose: strengthening our relationships with those we rely on.
Historically, most of the research has focused on gratitude’s social function, not its impact on our brains. This body of research has found that, to put it bluntly, expressing gratitude to someone who helps you keeps them interested and invested in having a relationship with you over the long haul. It makes their time, effort, and inconvenience seem worth it.
In the same vein, there is nothing quite like ingratitude to sour an otherwise happy relationship. It’s not difficult for most of us to recall a time when we were shocked at how unappreciative and thoughtless someone was in response to our generosity. (If you are a parent, chances are you only have to think back to this morning’s breakfast.) Without some sort of acknowledgement, people very quickly stop wanting to help you. In fact, in a set of studies by Adam Grant and Francesca Gino, when someone wasn’t thanked for their help, their future rates of helping people were immediately cut in half.
Gratitude is a glue that binds you and your benefactor together, allowing you to hit the same well over and over again, knowing that support won’t run dry.
At least, gratitude can be that glue if you do it right. Recent research suggests that people often make a critical mistake when expressing gratitude: They focus on how they feel — how happy they are, how they have benefited from the help — rather than focusing on the benefactor.
Researchers Sara Algoe, Laura Kurtz, and Nicole Hilaire at the University of North Carolina distinguished between two types of gratitude expressions: other-praising, which acknowledges and validates the actions of the giver, and self-benefit, which describes how the receiver is better off for having been helped. In one of their studies, couples were observed expressing gratitude to each other for something their partner had recently done for them. Their expressions were then coded for the extent to which they were other-praising or focused on self-benefit. Examples of their expressions include:
It shows how responsible you are…
You go out of your way…
I feel like you’re really good at…
It let me relax…
It gave me bragging rights at work…
It makes me happy…
Finally, benefactors rated how happy they felt, how loving they felt toward their partner, and how responsive they felt the gratitude-giver had been. The researchers found that other-praising gratitude was strongly related to perceptions of responsiveness, positive emotion, and loving — but self-benefit gratitude was not.
This is worth taking a moment to think about because most people get gratitude utterly wrong. More often than not, human beings are a bit egocentric by nature. We have a tendency to talk about ourselves even when we should be thinking and talking about others. So naturally when we get high-quality help and support, we want to talk how it made us feel. Though to be fair, we assume that’s what the helper wants to hear — they were helping to make us happy, so they must want to hear about how happy we are.
But this assumption isn’t quite right. Yes, your helper wants you to be happy, but the motivation to be helpful often is tied directly to our own sense of self-worth. We help because we want to be good people, to live up to our goals and values, and, admittedly, to be admired.
Remember this the next time you receive support from a colleague or friend. Helpers want to see themselves positively and to feel understood and cared for — which is difficult for them to do when you won’t stop talking about yourself.
Heidi Grant, PhD, is a social psychologist who researches, writes, and speaks about the science of motivation. She is Global Director of Research & Development at the NeuroLeadership Institute and serves as Associate Director of Columbia’s Motivation Science Center. She received her doctorate in social psychology from Columbia University. Her most recent book is Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You. She’s also the author of Nine Things Successful People Do Differently and No One Understands You and What to Do About It.