Importantly, the letter writers were asked to predict how surprised, happy and awkward the recipients would feel after receiving their gratitude. The researchers then followed up with the recipients to see how they reported feeling.
The expressions of gratitude consistently underestimated how much people value being appreciated. And the recipients of the letters found it significantly less awkward than the writers predicted. Simply put, receiving gratitude was far more likely to make someone’s day than the people giving them gratitude expected.
“In everyday life, we don’t seem to be fully aware of the extent of the impact we have on other people,” said Amit Kumarprofessor of marketing and psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the study.
This miscalibrated expectation can be a potent reason why we often don’t express our gratitude more often, Kumar said. “Essentially, if you think you’re not going to make that much of an impact, you might not actually bother doing it,” he said.
Why is it not thanked as often as it should be?
Underestimating the effects of gratitude on the recipient may be due to a mismatch in the perspectives between what the giver of gratitude and the recipient focus on. The words not said and the thanks not given may be due to these misunderstandings.
Kumar and his colleagues found that the participants who wrote the letters of gratitude were hung up on competencies that expressed their appreciation—was their letter well-formed and eloquent enough?
But the people who received these letters cared more about the feelings of interpersonal warmth and did not judge the writers so harshly on how the letter of appreciation was written: They were happy simply to receive gratitude in the first place.
“In some cases, this excessive concern about competence can actually get in the way of engaging in these kinds of actions,” Kumar said.
Interestingly, participants in these research studies reported wanting to perform these prosocial acts more often. But by underestimating the benefits of sharing gratitude with the recipient, we build barriers to both our own well-being and those we care about.
Unfortunately, we don’t often have the opportunity to recalibrate our sense of how our appreciation affected someone’s day, which can make overcoming this “misplaced barrier” more difficult. This also means missing out on the benefits of expressing gratitude to ourselves; research finds consistent practices such as writing down what you are grateful for improves happiness and well-being.
New research on social cognition shows that we have a bias toward “undersocialitywhere we underestimate how positively others respond to our social outreach includes all forms of prosocial behavior, regardless of whether it performs acts of kindness, asking for help or just initiate a conversation.
But making an active intention to give thanks when you feel grateful can make a difference.
Gratitude helps bind us together
“At the end of the day, it comes down to: most people want to be appreciated,” said Sara Algoe, psychologist who runs the Emotions and Social Interactions in Relationships Laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We need social relationships, we value social relationships, we crave being connected to other people.”
Gratitude is a unique catalyst for not only finding these connections, but strengthening them, Algoe said. That “find-mind-and-bind” theory suggests that gratitude helps us make new contacts, reminds us that current connections care about us, and binds us closer together.
In a 2022 study published in Scientific reports Algoe and her colleagues, who involved 125 couples in a five-week field experiment, found that pushing one partner to express more gratitude led to more time together as a couple.
In the experiment, half of the couples had one person who was encouraged to express their gratitude when they felt grateful to their partner. The call was formulated to “really tap into people’s natural opportunities to experience gratitude and show them that there are those opportunities to express it and then get them to make a plan to express it,” Algoe said.
The grateful partner was also encouraged to keep this extra task a secret so that their appreciation would be received as more genuine. (Most partners kept the secret, but one admitted they talked about the experiment as soon as they left the lab, Algoe said.)
Those encouraged to express thanks shared their gratitude more often with their partners; these couples increased the amount of time they spent together by an estimated 68 minutes per day on average, representing more social investment and stronger social ties.
“I think one of the big takeaways is that gratitude can contribute to well-being, and part of the reason it contributes to well-being is because it helps us feel connected to other people ,” Kumar said.
You probably have people in your life for whom you are grateful. So how should you express this gratitude?
“The first thing is to do it,” Algoe said. “Don’t forget the basic step. And don’t overthink it.”
You can also make it easier to express gratitude. Kumar said that after seeing the benefits of gratitude from his research, he began keeping a supply of thank you cards on his desk to help him remember to express gratitude more often in his daily life.
Algoe suggests reframing the goal of what gratitude is for something. She calls it putting the “you” in “thanks”.
“It’s subtle, this turning it away from yourself and turning it towards them, and what it was about their actions that was amazing,” she said.
In the end, just remind yourself that saying thank you really does make a difference.
“It’s not like a huge effort,” Kumar said. But a small shift in how often you express thanks can make a “pretty big difference when it comes to how we feel and how we treat others.”
Have a question about human behavior or neuroscience? E-mail BrainMatters@washpost.com and we may answer that in a future column.