The Power Behind A Simple ‘Thank You’
‘Thank you’ - two words we say all the time that we rarely give a second thought to, but that actually carry huge power. Giving thanks has been ingrained within us from a young age - we were all taught in our childhoods to say our Ps and Qs and the importance of having good manners. However, what many of us don't realise is that a simple ‘thank you’ extends far beyond good manners and can have an influential impact on individual and collective well-being.
We at the Neighbourly Lab are interested in what occurs below the surface of saying thank you; we see gratitude as complex and multilayered. We aim to unpack the tiny sequences that occur in the experiences of gratitude and how these tiny actions can have big positive effects on the wellbeing and functioning of people and communities. We believe it is important to have an in-depth understanding of the concept of gratitude as this can provide vital insight into the development of more happy, cohesive and resilient communities. An insight that could not be more apt than in these times of adversity and uncertainty. We intend to uncover this insight through examining what gratitude is beyond superficial levels, the action of giving thanks, and the implications gratitude has on wellbeing and societal function. This leads to the understanding that practicing an attitude of gratitude could be the secret to getting through times of crisis.
What is gratitude?
Gratitude is prevalent across cultures, religions and history, demonstrating its universal nature, and ultimately the importance of understanding such a transcendent concept. To better understand the depths of gratitude, it seems a good place to start would be the tip of the iceberg - the everyday experience of expressing thanks.
So, what is gratitude? The Oxford English Dictionary (1989) defined gratitude as “the quality or condition of being thankful; the appreciation of an inclination to return kindness” (p.1135).
Whilst we are generally all aware of the experience of being thankful and the feeling of gratitude (e.g. a person gives you a gift out of kindness and you feel appreciative of that gesture), the theoretical and conceptual notion of gratitude and its effects proves it to be more complex.
Psychologist and world expert on gratitude, Robert Emmons, describes gratitude as “an emotion, the core of which is pleasant feelings about the benefit received. At the cornerstone of gratitude is the notion of undeserved merit. The grateful person recognised that he or she did nothing to deserve the gift or benefit; it was freely bestowed.” (p.4). Immediately, we see that gratitude is an emotion, an experience, and a dynamic between the beneficiary and the favour granter. Essentially, when grateful, we identify and appreciate the intention and effort involved in the actions on our behalf and the benefits generated. One then expresses their gratitude through giving thanks. The majority of gratitude research argues that giving thanks makes us feel better and brings us closer. So, why is it that being grateful can have these positive effects, and what does this mean for us and our communities?
Gratitude has important implications for societal functioning and for both individual and collective wellbeing. Research has reported that a conscious focus on gratitude makes life more fulfilling, meaningful, and productive. One line of research that is often discussed in research is gratitude as a moral affect, which creates conditions for more prosocial behaviour. For instance, McCullough et al. (2001) suggest that by feeling grateful, an individual is more inclined to carry out prosocial behaviour, sustain moral behaviours, and avoid negative interpersonal behaviours. Gratitude as a moral affect is not inferring that the emotion or associated action of gratitude is itself moral, but instead that gratitude tends to result from and stimulates behaviour that is motivated out of concern for others. We tend to see a stronger association between gratitude and prosociality where there are reciprocal exchanges and often in response to others’ kindness. And this trend is just as prevalent between strangers as it is between close relationships. This demonstrates an overall positivity around the experience of gratitude and the chain of effects it creates. This understanding could provide interesting insights into bridging gaps between individuals and communities, and how it can impact the wellbeing and functioning of these people and groups.
Positive emotions, such as gratitude, have been shown to form mutually beneficial relationships with health and wellbeing. These positive emotions encourage individual and collective happiness and flourishing in an upward spiral, which in turn encourages further gratitude and kindness. Recognising someone else’s effort and kindness towards you and expressing appreciation in response is a simple task for such great returns. Through diving below the surface of gratitude, we can see that a simple thank you holds a lot of unexpected power that can result in a magnitude of positive outcomes for you and others around you. This leads us to the final point, that the implications of gratitude on individual and collective wellbeing can lead to greater resilience.
Gratitude in times of crisis
Daily gratitude practice is good for us, it helps us reduce stress, get better sleep and stay healthier. When gratitude is expressed during challenging times, it can help you in recognising the positives in one's life, which consequently, makes people happier, and reduces fear and anxiety during uncertain times and situations. This means that “grateful people may have more psychic manoeuvrability than the ungrateful, enabling them to be less defensive and more open to life” (Emmons and Shelton, 2002 p.468). Attitudes of gratefulness can build resilience. Cultivating gratitude fosters resilience as it provides a coping mechanism to difficult situations, identifies what we can control in uncertain times, and motivates us to move forward with positivity. So far, we have seen in the COVID pandemic that those with greater gratitude had more positive emotions and prosocial responses. We have seen so many people support others during this unprecedented time, people and communities have come together and shown exceptional kindness and selflessness. Recognising these efforts and giving thanks for the abundance of supportive actions, means that we see positives in this tough situation. This recognition and feeling of gratitude not only makes us feel better during these challenging times but also makes us more likely to behave in a way that supports others. Finally, in the long term, adversity encourages us not to take things for granted, as we see the possibility of things we have being taken away. For instance, in times of social distancing we recognise the value of being able to hug our friends and family. Therefore, crises can also help us to be more grateful in the future.
So, what can we take from this?
First and foremost, we can see that gratitude proves to be a powerful experience which can have significant implications on individuals and collective society. Having a conscious focus on gratitude can make one's life more fulfilling, meaningful, and productive, whilst also positively impacting their mental and physical health. These effects can be hugely beneficial in times of crisis, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, as they make individuals and communities more resilient to uncertainty. Ultimately, a simple ‘thank you’ goes a very long way, so next time someone does something for you, don’t forget to express your appreciation.