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Giving Thanks: How Gratitude Strengthens Relationships

Research shows that gratitude improves connection and relationship satisfaction.

Key points

  • Showing gratitude to loved ones improves connection and relationships satisfaction.
  • Couples who express gratitude spend more time together.
  • Research shows that gratitude increases romantic partners' satisfaction with their sex life.
lilit/Adobe Stock
lilit/Adobe Stock

Millions of people will gather with family and friends this week to celebrate what may be one of the most quintessential American holidays: Thanksgiving. For many people, the holiday revolves around turkey, football, and the start of the holiday shopping season. Although those traditions are fun, research shows there are major benefits to remembering the sentiment that goes along with the season: gratitude.

Scientific studies have proven that cultivating a mindset of noticing and appreciating the positives in our lives protects us from psychological distress. A 2010 systematic review found that “an attitude of gratitude” is linked to reduced incidence of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse; it has also been shown to help people adjust to traumatic life events and their aftermaths. A more recent review found strong evidence that a grateful outlook is tied to emotional and social well-being.

On top of the personal benefits, a growing body of evidence demonstrates that expressing gratitude is good for your relationships.

Sara Algoe, a social psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has developed the leading theory on how and why gratitude affects relationships. But first, understanding the factors that make relationships work is important, she says, because there is clear evidence that high-quality relationships – both romantic and platonic – predict better mental and physical health, and can even help us to live longer.

“On a big picture level, we know having good relationships is highly correlated with having good physical health and good mental health,” she said. “People embedded in more quality relationships actually live longer, so we know there’s something really important about making sure we shore up our close relationships.”

Algoe and her team have conducted dozens of studies on how expressing gratitude affects our relationships. In one study of cohabitating couples, she found that when one partner expressed gratitude, both partners reported improved connection and relationship satisfaction the following day. In another study, she looked at the benefits of expressing gratitude between sorority sisters over a longer time frame. New sorority members who expressed gratitude for gifts were more likely to report a strong connection with the gift-giver a month after receiving the gift, compared to recipients who didn’t express gratitude.

Her team also conducted a five-week-long experiment looking at the relationship between gratitude and connection among romantic partners. Her team developed a quick intervention program to help participants create a plan to express gratitude to their partners. Over five weeks, couples who followed the program expressed more gratitude to their partners and, importantly, spent more time together each day – 68 minutes more on average compared with couples not enrolled in the gratitude intervention.

Expressions of gratitude also lead to more spontaneous expressions of affection between partners – such as hand-holding and kissing – according to another one of Aloge’s studies. Gratitude can even improve the sex lives of romantic partners, according to a study by a different group of researchers!

What’s going on here? When we feel gratitude, it focuses our attention on what we love and appreciate about a partner or friend and motivates us to show it. Hearing an expression of gratitude makes the recipient feel good about themselves and the relationship, which leads to all sorts of other benefits.

The take-home message: Gratitude is good for your relationships. This Thanksgiving holiday, be sure to express thanks to the important people in your life, and focus on extending that grateful attitude in the months to come.

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