Saying “thank you” is a cornerstone of civilization and the key to personal friendships according to a new study by researchers at the University of New South Wales in Australia. Perhaps there is something to the thank you notes mothers are forever forcing children to write to great-aunts and grandparents. Gratitude may not simply be a social nicety, but the glue that holds society together.
The UNSW study backs up the theory that gratitude has efficacious consequences. Expressions of gratitude foster connection between people. Saying thank you causes humans to work more cooperatively and gives rise to positive emotions. The paper, “Warm Thanks: Gratitude Expression Facilitates Social Affiliation in New Relationships via Perceived Warmth,” was published in the August edition of Emotion. The study was performed on the find-remind-and-bind theory which proposes that gratitude has an evolutionary purpose of strengthening human relationships by identifying responsive, interactive partners.
In the experiment, a group of 70 college students were set up as mentors to supposed high school students and asked to critique a college admissions essay. Afterward, 50 percent of the college students received thank you notes from their “mentees” and all were given the chance to share contact information. Those who received expressions of gratitude were much more likely to share their information which could possibly begin an ongoing relationship. The find-remind-and-bind theory states that gratitude serves to alert people to the possibility of high-quality social bonds.
The co-authors of the study, Lisa A. Williams and Monica Y. Bartlett, have been examining the role of gratitude in society for years. In 2010 they were involved with research that looked at communal versus individual goals and decision making. It is often assumed that working for the greater good requires humans’ better natures. People have to suppress their desires and emotions in order to achieve a group benefit; but the researchers found that this was not the case. Working toward the betterment of all gave people more feelings of satisfaction and happiness, and gratitude greased the wheels. The study states, “Findings demonstrate that the social emotion gratitude functions to engender cooperative economic exchange even at the expense of greater financial gains.”
This summer people across the country are taking the gratitude challenge: expressing three things they are grateful for over three days. They are then challenging friends to do the same. The purpose of the challenge is to shift one’s attitude from complaint and resentment to thankfulness. Decades ago Oprah Winfrey encouraged viewers to keep gratitude journals for the same reason. Changing one’s personal outlook on life changes one’s relationship with the outside world and allows more positive experiences to flow in. It seems gratitude is just as good for personal growth as it is for interpersonal relationships.
A study led by Jo-Ann Tsang, PhD of Baylor University, looked at how gratitude increases happiness. The study, Why are Materialists Less happy? The Role of Gratitude and Need Satisfaction in the Relationship between Materialism and Life Satisfaction, found that gratitude is a positive mood. People want to help each other, and receiving either aid or gratitude motivates people to help others. Tsang says, “We’re social creatures, and so focusing on others in a positive way is good for our health.”
Another study published this August analyzes the roots of human altruism. The Evolutionary Origin of Human Hyper-Cooperation was published by Nature Communications. The paper posits that prosociality has led to humans’ complex cognition, morality, culture and technology. Various primates were given the choice to receive a treat or provide a treat to other group members. Only humans and Callitrichidae (tamarins and marmosets) reliably chose to feed the group. Before the study it was theorized that advanced cognitive ability led to cooperation. The researchers now believe it is the other way around; cooperation has led to exceptional cognitive skills. Lead researcher Judith Burkart suggests, “When our hominin ancestors began to raise their offspring cooperatively, then they laid the foundation for both our altruism and our exceptional cognition.”
Gratitude may be the key to human cooperation. Expressing thanks signals the potential for relationships and paves the way for collaboration. Saying thank you may be a cornerstone of civilization – the basis for human teamwork that enabled progress – as well as the rock upon which friendships stand.
By: Rebecca Savastio