Research has shown that expressing gratitude can improve our health and happiness, as well as our relationships. But what good is gratitude to someone on the receiving end of a “thank you”?

“If gratitude is actually good for relationships, we should be able to see its effects on the other side of the relationship unit,” says Sara Algoe, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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In a new study, Algoe and her colleagues explored whether receiving gratitude from a romantic partner might affect one’s long-term attitudes about the relationship.

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They recruited 77 heterosexual couples who had been romantically involved for at least six months (the average was four years); roughly 56 percent were dating, 39 percent were married, and 4 percent were engaged to be or living as married.

All the partners rated their relationship satisfaction and were filmed expressing gratitude to each other for something nice their partner had done for them recently.

After receiving gratitude, the participants rated how much their partner seemed to understand, validate, and care for them—what the researchers call the partner’s “responsiveness.” Previous research has found that responsiveness is essential to intimacy and is linked to healthy relationships. Six to nine months later, the participants again rated their relationship satisfaction.

The results, published in the journal Emotion, show that after receiving gratitude, participants saw their partner as significantly more responsive to their needs and were more generally satisfied with their relationship. Strikingly, these positive effects were still observed six to nine months later. The researchers suggest that expressing and receiving gratitude in the lab may have “jump-started” an “upward spiral of gratitude-fueled mutual displays of responsiveness that would contribute to improved relationship quality.”

Logo for the GGSC Gratitude Project The GGSC's coverage of gratitude is sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation as part of our Expanding Gratitude project.

In addition to asking participants to express gratitude, the authors also had participants share something good and bad that happened to them recently, measuring the extent to which their partner expressed joy after the good news and support after the bad—both of which have been linked to positive relationship quality. Regardless of how much joy or support the partners displayed, the results indicate that receiving gratitude was independently linked to relationship satisfaction at least six months later, suggesting there is something unique about the benefits of gratitude.

“The fact that we were able to show the independent effects of expressed gratitude above and beyond the effects of other behaviors that we already know are important for relationships draws attention to the importance of expressed gratitude for weaving together the fabric of our social life,” says Algoe.

Taken together, these results suggest that gratitude not only confers positive benefits on an individual but can also foster a closer and more fulfilling relationship for both partners. While numerous studies have demonstrated the benefits of gratitude for the expresser, this is the first to show how the target of gratitude reaps these relationship benefits. Algoe, who has received a grant through the Greater Good Science Center’s Expanding Gratitude project to advance her research, says that her future studies will explore which specific aspects of gratitude communication lead to better relationships.

So the next time your significant other makes you feel grateful, let them know. It may contribute to a more positive and intimate relationship down the road.

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