GU Research: How Gratitude Helps Us

Monica Bartlett

September 09, 2014

(Above) Monica Bartlett

By Peter Tormey

SPOKANE, Wash. — Saying thank you has been among the commonest of cultural civilities for centuries. Now new research offers the first evidence that expressions of gratitude go beyond mere etiquette and provide real social benefit.

In their new study to be published in the journal Emotion, social psychologists Monica Bartlett at Gonzaga University and Lisa Williams at the University of New South Wales, Australia, offer the first known evidence that gratitude leads to perceptions of interpersonal warmth, creating fertile ground for relationships to bloom.

"Our study was the first to show evidence that yes, indeed, an expression of gratitude could help to initiate a new relationship," Bartlett said. "Our study shows just how important it is to say thank you to someone. A simple thank you leads people to view you as a warmer human being and, consequently, to be more interested in socially engaging with you and continuing to get to know you to build a relationship with you."

The study involved 70 university students who were led to believe they would provide mentoring advice to a high school student by commenting on their university admission essay. Afterward, all mentors received a hand-written note supposedly from their mentee. In half the cases the note included the following expression of gratitude: "Thank you SO much for all the time and effort you put into doing that for me!" The undergraduates who were thanked were more likely to want to continue their relationship with their mentee than those who were not thanked. In addition, the grateful mentees were rated as having significantly warmer personalities.

The study tested the "find" component of the find-remind-and-bind theory (Algoe, 2012), which suggests gratitude helps people develop new relationships (find), build on existing relationships (remind), and maintain both (bind). The findings provide the first empirical evidence regarding the "find" premise of the theory and suggests people develop new relationships with grateful others because of an enhanced perception of personal warmth.

Bartlett has conducted extensive research on how an attitude of gratitude leads people to behave in more thoughtful, helpful and kind ways. Research has also shown that gratitude experienced more deeply and more often is linked to many benefits for people, including increases in well-being and decreases in depression. There are many possible explanations for gratitude's benefits but more research is needed to pinpoint why it's so helpful, she said.

Bartlett first began thinking about how emotions could benefit people while earning a master's degree in criminal justice at Northeastern University. She understood how emotions like jealousy and anger run amok contributed to antisocial and criminal behavior and ruined lives, and she was aware of the longstanding cultural and philosophical narratives that passions were the opposite of reason. Nevertheless, Bartlett, who earned a Ph.D. in psychology at Northeastern, sensed there was much more to the story of human emotions.

"I felt that our emotions could be a really beautiful and positive thing and also functional, helping us to make rational and thoughtful decisions," she said. "Gratitude seemed like a good place to start because when we feel grateful it definitely connects us to others. Also, at the time I started looking at this there was almost no research on gratitude."

Since then, researchers like Bartlett have uncovered enough evidence of the positive aspects of emotions to turn previously held assumptions on their heads.

"There is so much evidence now that our emotions are an important component of our navigation of the social world and that without the ability to feel you would be in a lot of trouble," she said. From the beginning of her work on gratitude in graduate school, Bartlett began to see a "beautiful blossoming that comes from feeling grateful."

Historically, psychology has focused on disease and fixing what's wrong with people. Bartlett and others in the positive psychology movement are contributing new insights to that tradition by focusing on what's beautiful, promising and right with people and their relationships. As a result more research aims to understand what makes people flourish.

To cultivate gratitude and improve one's well-being, she recommends that her students begin a gratitude journal, noting nightly three things that went well each day. Bartlett has done it for years and practices it with her own children.

"Researchers have looked at this. Before you go to bed each night, write down three things that went well that day and why," she said. "That can bring these wonderful benefits - again increases in well-being and decreases in depression."

Some of her students push back, asking if something so simple can be so effective.

"The answer is 'yes,' " she said. "I think part of it is that after you do this long enough, you start to switch the way you are thinking."