Growing in Gratitude
Couples who regularly express gratitude for each other are more satisfied with their relationship–they are more joyful, feel closer to each other, and are more committed to each other.
"Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful." - Colossians 3:14-15
Like Paul did in his letter to the Colossians, many of the Old and New Testament writers connected love, peace and harmony with thankfulness. Not surprisingly, scientific research over the last decade has confirmed what many of the ancient writers knew–that grateful people are happier people. They are more satisfied with their life, feel more joyful, and have higher levels of enthusiasm and feelings of pleasure. Research shows that couples that express gratitude for each other are more satisfied with their relationship–they feel closer to each other and are more committed to each other. Such couples value each other, and are more generous toward each other.
Dr. Amie Gordon states that gratitude helps spouses feel more committed to each other, in that they recognize the value in their partners–and a valuable partner is worth holding onto (i.e., being committed to). She found in her research that gratitude can help relationships thrive by promoting a cycle of generosity: We feel more grateful when we value our spouses and feel more committed to them, leading us to be more responsive and attentive to each other, leading to increased levels of feeling valued and appreciated, which increases one's feeling of gratitude (thus completing the cycle). She notes:
"Gratitude includes appreciating not just what your partner does, but who they are as a person. You're not just thankful that your partner took out the trash–you're thankful that you have a partner who is thoughtful enough to know you hate taking out the trash. Gratitude means thinking about all of your partner's best traits and remembering why you got into a relationship with them in the first place."
Dr. Robert Emmons is one of the world's leading scientific experts on gratitude. He has found gratitude is an affirmation of goodness–believing that God gave us many gifts, big and small. ("This doesn't mean that life is perfect; it doesn't ignore complaints, burdens and hassles", he writes, "But when we look at life as a whole, gratitude encourages us to identify some amount of goodness in our life"). He also sees gratitude as a "relationship-strengthening emotion" because it requires us to see how we have been supported and affirmed by other people.
Shaunti Feldhahn found that 72 percent of men are more powerfully affected by hearing "thank you" than by hearing "I love you," and 69 percent are powerfully affected by hearing their wives say, "You did a great job at that."
Practical Ways to Grow in Gratitude
Dr. Emmons says that one of the best ways to cultivate gratitude is to keep a "gratitude journal," in which we regularly record the things for which we are grateful. He offers additional suggestions:
- Remember the hard times that you once experienced, as this contrast is fertile ground for gratefulness.
- Recall prayers of gratitude–because through these prayers we find the source of who we are and who we will be.
- Be more mindful. Visual reminders can serve as cues to trigger thoughts of gratitude. Often times, the best visual reminders are other people.
- Make a vow to practice gratitude. Write your own gratitude vow, which could be as simple as "I vow to count my blessings each day," and post it somewhere where you will be reminded of it each day.
- Throughout the day practice speaking gratitude (e.g., "I feel blessed, fortunate..." or "I have an abundance of...") and acting gratefully (e.g., smiling, saying thank you and writing letters of gratitude).
Christopher Grace serves as the director of the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships and teaches psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology. He and his wife, Alisa, speak regularly to married couples, churches, singles and college students on the topic of relationships, dating and marriage. Grace earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in experimental social psychology from Colorado State University.