Why we don’t say thanks as often as we should.
When is the last time you took five minutes to truly express your thanks to someone who made a difference in your life? It’s such an easy way to get a mood boost (and seriously boost the mood of someone else) and you don’t even have to pay for a stamp and find a mailbox – you can just shoot off a quick email or text message. So why don’t people do it more often? Psychologists Kumar and Epley recently asked this question. Here are five interesting findings from their research:
- People want to write gratitude letters, but don’t. On a scale of −5 (I do this much less often than I’d like) to 5 (I do this much more often than I’d like), where 0 was labeled “just about right” participants in two different studies reported an average of -2. People would like to be writing gratitude letters, but aren’t.
- People consistently get a mood boost when writing gratitude letters. In all of the studies, people felt significantly happier than normal after they had taken a few minutes to write a gratitude letter.
- A main concern when writing gratitude letters is how they will be received—people want to send gratitude letters to recipients who will appreciate them. When people thought about writing a gratitude letter in these studies, they were most likely to write it to someone they thought would feel really good after reading it, and least likely to write it to someone they thought would feel awkward after reading it.
- People consistently underestimate the impact of sending a gratitude letter. After writing their gratitude letters, Kumar and Epley had people predict how good it would make the recipient feel and how awkward it would make them feel, and then they asked the recipients to report how they actually felt after reading the letter. Across the board, the researchers found that people tended to underestimate how good the recipient would feel and overestimate how awkward the recipient feel.
- People focus on their competence when writing letters, and this holds them back. When people imagined the impact of a gratitude letter in these studies, they focused on the importance of “getting their words right.” You might put off writing a letter because you feel like you need to wait until you have the time to write the perfect letter. But the researchers found that recipients aren’t paying attention to competence, they are feeling the warmth and sincerity of the message, regardless of how well it is written.
So people want to send gratitude letters but don’t. Why not? In short, they don’t want to make people feel awkward. And they imagine that sending letters won’t make people feel that great, but it will make people feel awkward, so they don’t do it. But recipients don’t feel awkward. They feel good, very good. And the people writing the letters feel good too.
This is true of sharing gratitude in so many areas of our lives—we rarely take the time to meaningfully thank people who make a difference in our lives, big or small, because we don’t realize the impact it will have on them.
Over the past few years, I have done an experiment similar to Kumar and Epley’s on myself. I started to notice that I would feel grateful to someone and know I was grateful, but would never say anything. So after studying the benefits of gratitude for years, I finally started saying something—after reading a really great book summarizing relationship research, I found an email address for the author’s publisher and sent an email that took me all of 3 minutes to express how much I liked the book and what a great job I thought the author had done with making the research relatable. She wrote back that night telling me my email had made her week and that after realizing how good it felt to receive my email, she was going to follow suit and start expressing her appreciation to people when she felt it.
After recently spending some time with my sister-in-law, I found myself thinking about what an awesome adult she has become (she was 10 when I first met her). I meant to write her an email and let her know, but after weeks had gone by and I hadn’t done it, I finally just called her up and told her to listen while I extolled her virtues. How many times do we have these types of thoughts that we just let go by unacknowledged?
Last week at the airport, I was so impressed by a TSA agent who was making everyone in the security line laugh, which is quite a feat at any time of the day, but especially first thing in the morning. When he swung by me, I told him I really appreciated his positive outlook and good humor, and the passengers in line next to me started expressing their gratitude too.
I have had thoughts like these for years but never bothered to express them. I didn’t realize the impact they could have. But now (I hope) I’ll never stop. It is just such a low-cost, easy way to get an instant mood boost. And focusing on the good in others is a nice way to feel better about humanity as a whole.
Try it. Go out and express your gratitude to one unsuspecting person this week. Don’t worry about getting it perfect, a simple “You’re awesome” is better than saying nothing at all. Then report back and tell me how it went.