Don’t worry; be ... grateful?

In relationships, a good deed trumps a good mood.

By Leslie Atchley (English '05)

Photo by Jack Mellott.

Conventional wisdom teaches that happiness makes the world a friendlier place. But psychology graduate student Sara Algoe has devoted her studies to showing that another emotion also deserves the credit: gratitude.

Gratitude is defined as positive feelings from a kind act that is done for you, while happiness involves positive feelings about a personal accomplishment. Algoe (PhD, Psychology ’05) is writing her dissertation on the positive effects gratitude has on personal relationships.

“People really seem to characterize [gratitude] as a reciprocity thing — when someone does something good for you, you repay them,” said Algoe. She emphasized, however, that the emotion works in much more complex ways. Recipients of kind acts who experience gratitude “really do think about the other person in new and positive ways.”

Most researchers who study positive emotions focus on happiness. When Algoe decided to concentrate on gratitude, she found the literature sparse and inadequate. The problem with an exclusive emphasis on happiness, according to Algoe, is that it says nothing about the experiences we have with other people. Gratitude, on the other hand, comes from interpersonal exchanges and thus has the potential to improve our relationships.  

Algoe has tested the hypothesis that happiness is not “the be-all, end-all positive emotion” and that other positive emotions, such as gratitude, play an important role in daily life. In one experiment, participants wrote about several different situations in which they felt specific positive emotions. She compared the answers and found marked differences between happiness responses and gratitude responses.

When participants recalled something good that happened to them (the happiness scenario), Algoe found that they were “pretty much self-focused, not in a bad way, but they wanted to celebrate and tell people how great they felt.” In contrast, when participants had something good done for them (the gratitude scenario), they wanted to tell people about the other person’s kindness and did not focus on themselves.

Algoe was impressed at how vividly participants were able to recall instances of gratitude, even when they had occurred many months or even years ago. “We found that people really do experience gratitude in their daily lives,” she said, which heightens the potential for future studies on how it can improve emotional communication in relationships.

She is currently conducting a study on dorm roommates to explore the hypothesis that gratitude fosters friendships. “The idea is that gratitude comes from the feeling that the other person likes you or cares about you,” said Algoe, “and that you should want to reciprocate with friend-like behavior.” She has the two roommates (we’ll call them Mary and Jane) sit in separate rooms and write letters to each other. Mary writes to Jane about a time when Jane did something nice for her, while Jane writes to Mary about a fun time they had or another event unrelated to gratitude. They then have a phone conversation that Algoe analyzes to see whether Jane picks up on Mary’s grateful feelings and is positively influenced by them without knowing the subject of Mary’s letter.

Although the extent to which gratitude can positively affect relationships remains to be seen, Algoe is optimistic about what future research and analysis will reveal. “One of the critical things about human nature is that we are social creatures,” she said, “and so responding to other people’s kindnesses in an emotional way is something that we think can really make us want to become better people.”