Gratitude, happiness, and relationships

14 11 2014

Gratitude is another positive emotion that is strongly associated with happiness. Specifically, it boosts happiness, self-worth, social relations and optimism. It lowers negative emotions such as envy, materialism, self-blame etc.

To be grateful means to allow oneself to be placed in the position of a recipient—to feel indebted, aware of one’s dependence on others, and obligated to reciprocate.Above all, Gratitude is a mindset than a single act. The realization that all is gift is freeing, and freedom is the very foundation upon which gratitude is based.

One interesting thing is, gratitude may seem counter-intuitive to us.  “Thinking about oneself is natural, humility is unnatural.” We may have to really fight our narcissist instincts to cultivate gratitude in life, but it’s well worth it.

As eminent psychologist Thomas Gilovich puts it, there are two major enemies of gratitude:

  • The headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry or negativity bias, which refers to our tendency to see the things that are holding us back more clearly than that are pushing us forward.
  • Power of adaptation – which refers to our tendency to get used to things and take them for granted.

Practicing gratitude means counting your blessings. Life may not always be just, but you feel grateful for what you have got and move on. Gratitude amplifies the good in our lives – it enables us to notice the good, to reflect more positively on our past. It improves our social lives – because people like grateful people, it enhances pro-social behavior.

However, there is an important caveat to the practice of gratitude. More is not always good. Research studies have shown that while recording in the gratitude journal thrice a week boosted  happiness,  recording daily didn’t result in any increase in well-being. So, don’t overdose on gratitude.

An important thing we need to keep in mind while practicing gratitude is that we should not ignore or fail to recognize our own effort and value. Grateful people give credit to others, but not at the expense of acknowledging their own responsibility for their success. They take credit, too. It’s not either/or. 

Research suggests that gratitude is a key ingredient to successful romantic relationships. Sara Algoe’s study found that grateful couples are more satisfied in their relationships and felt closer to each other. Amie Gordon has done some remarkable research on Gratitude in romantic relationships and she defines gratitude in this context as “appreciating not just what your partner does, but who they are as a person”. You just don’t thank the person for the “act” but thank their intention behind the act. She says that gratitude means “thinking about all about your partner’s best traits and remembering why you got into a relationship with them in the first place.”

This is really a profound insight because one of the major problems in long term relationships is that the spark usually fizzles out with time and partners take each other for granted before too long and this results in a kind of disillusionment and/or everyday dissatisfaction, which may introduce new problems. But if we continue to appreciate our partners and be grateful for their presence in our lives, the relationships will continue to bloom.

Couples researchers Philip and Carolyn Cowan have shown that when the partners feel that the division of work in their relationship is unfair, they are more dissatisfied with their marriage and more likely to think they would better off divorced. But Jess Alberts and Angela Trethwey theorized and affirmed that it’s not the division of labor but the expression of gratitude that’s the key to strong and lasting relationship.

Jess Alberts and Angela Trethwey explain how one partner gets stuck with a particular household chore. The first thing is, there is something called “response threshold”, which may be different for each partner. So, the one who has lower response threshold for a task acts earlier on it than the other. Secondly, if a partner is skilled at a particular task, it increases his or her chance to perform the task again. As a result of these phenomena, the partner who does a particular task more frequently is perceived as a specialist and gets stuck with that task. Thus is the pattern set.  The problem here is that the under-performing partner does not feel grateful because, the over-performing partner is just doing his/her job. And this is a sure recipe for resentment and frustration. Given that each partner has different thresholds for different tasks and have different sets of skills, appreciating each other’s effort and contribution  and feeling grateful for each other boosts bonding. So, when the division of labor is unfair, perceiving the efforts of over-performing partner as gifts is important.  This typically makes the other partner feel obligated to reciprocate by offering his or own gifts by contributing more to household tasks.

Amie emphasizes the importance of communicating our appreciation and gratefulness to our partners; just feeling is not sufficient. Because only then it will result in the generosity cycle (That is, one partner’s gratitude can prompt both partners to think and act in ways that convey gratitude to each other and promote commitment to their relationship.) :

Feel grateful -> Work to keep relationship (Express gratitude, show concern, be attentive etc.) ->Partner feels appreciated -> Partner feels grateful

However, practicing gratitude in abusive and/or unhealthy relationships is not good for you.

Part 9 of Science of Happiness Series.

Part 1    Part 2    Part 3    Part 4   Part 5    Part 6    Part 7    Part 8