If you don’t want to read or watch, I’ll do a quick summary. Basically, it was found that people are happier when they express gratitude, and even happier if they are able to express gratitude directly to the person. The largest increases in happiness were found in those who initially reported the lowest levels of happiness.
This makes sense, right? Expressing gratitude means that you are polite, thoughtful, and respectful. Anyone would think these are characteristics of a well-adjusted, happy person. The catch is that there were people who initially expressed low levels of happiness, but their happiness increased significantly after expressing gratitude verbally and directly to another. Why?
Well, I think the answer lies in the process of expressing gratitude. One of my mentors always said, “It’s the process, not the content,” during our supervision sessions. It took me a while to understand what he meant, and I think it applies here (Thanks, Jeff). I’ll write about “the process” more in the coming weeks.
The process of expressing gratitude is powerful and intimate, more so than most people realize. It’s one thing to say “thanks”, it’s another thing to expound on that “thanks” and express how someone has really helped you as a person. Expressing gratitude opens your emotional world to another. That can make anyone feel vulnerable.
Why would someone feel vulnerable?
Two reasons why someone might feel vulnerable are: 1) the possibility of being hurt/exploited/criticized and 2) the possibility of actually emotionally connecting with another person in a healthy way. The latter is what happens with gratitude. When you express gratitude, you are saying, “I really appreciate you and the positive impact you have had on my life.” It may feel uncomfortable, but it feels good to make another person feel good, at least according to this study.
Why does any of this matter?
Well it matters quite a bit, certainly in therapy. My standard approach to working with a depressed individual is maintaining and increasing positive experiences (click here to read more about my approach). However, “positive experiences” are usually defined by actions that bring you joy: a hobby, lunch with a friend, something that makes you feel good. This study adds the twist of making someone else feel good by expressing gratitude. It will certainly add to my approach and hopefully yours.
If you are having a down day (or even a great day), express gratitude to someone. Test the idea out. See what it's like to send an email versus a phone call. If you're really brave, share your gratitude in person. You might be pleasantly surprised by how good it feels.
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