Cultivating Gratitude, Strengthening Social Bonds

November 17, 2022

Intentionally practicing gratitude helps you to regularly appreciate the good things in your life, rather than taking them for granted, and can result in both individual and community benefits.

Sarah Schnitker, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, studies how virtues such as gratitude are developed in young people, and Jo-Ann Tsang, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, researches gratitude in interpersonal relationships. Both are researching these subjects through grants from the John Templeton Foundation.

Schnitker studies the development of virtues in adolescents and emerging adults.

“There’s a lot more plasticity in these young people’s lives than later on in adulthood,” Schnitker says, “and identity formation is such a key task as they figure out questions like ‘Who do I want to be?’ ‘What commitments am I going to make in life?’”

The answer to these questions could lead to a happier life. Research shows that gratitude is good for an individual’s health, well-being and happiness. Gratitude also helps you find new relationships and bind you closer to relationships you already have by reinforcing positive interactions or social behaviors.

“We see a real causal link between gratitude and generosity, in particular,” Schnitker said. “There is experimental data in psychology showing that when you induce gratitude, people are more generous with their time, money and volunteering — not only to the person who just benefited them, but to a stranger to whom they don't have a relationship with, who might not ever pay it back again to them.”

Tsang defines gratitude as a response that happens when someone else gives you something good. “Gratitude is social and interpersonal because you feel grateful for something someone has given to you.”

This relational quality of gratitude is a prosocial interactive: it increases behavior that helps or benefits others outside of yourself. Gratitude helps maintain relationships because it makes you want to help others in the relationship.

“Gratitude interventions increase positive emotions and decrease negative emotion because it helps you take time to focus on the good things in your life,” Tsang said. A gratitude intervention is a practice of regularly engaging in exercises intended to cultivate a sense of gratitude.

Both Schnitker and Tsang noted the practice of writing a letter, telling someone why you are grateful for them as a particularly potent intervention. Although the the practice does not require sending the letter to be effective, doing so can spread the benefits — the person receiving the letter often feels gratitude in return.

Thanksgiving is a time for reflecting on the things we are grateful for, but it can also be rife with complex emotions. Hectic travel plans and long-awaited gatherings can be stressful, and the historic Thanksgiving narrative can conjure thoughts of injustices committed toward Native American people groups. Tsang noted that there are healthy boundary limits to gratitude, and she encourages the practice of “holding the tension of gratitude and the bad things” together.

“We are told in American culture all over the place that we need to be happy,” Tsang said, “but negative emotions can also help us grow. The negative emotions can show us where we need to treat ourselves with kindness or protest injustice. When held in balance with gratitude for the good and the people in our lives, we foster a culture of helping each other.”