May 24, 2010 -- A new study suggests small thoughtful gestures and a little everyday gratitude toward one's partner can yield a great deal of happiness and help strengthen relationships.
However, the researchers caution not to confuse gratitude with indebtedness, which, they said, does help maintain relationships but lacks the power that gratitude has in bringing a sense of fulfillment about the relationship.
The findings are published in the June issue of Personal Relationships.
Sara B. Algoe, an assistant professor of research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies emotions and reciprocity, and colleagues looked at the interactions between 67 heterosexual couples who had been in a romantic relationship for at least three months.
The participants were either students or staff at a West Coast college campus. Their mean age was 25; 57% had completed college; 56% were white, 27.6% were Asian, 8.2% were Latino, and 7.5% indicated "other."
The couples had been together an average of 3.26 years and had been living together an average of 1.8 years. Nearly 24% of the participants were married and nearly 12% were engaged.
The participants completed nightly diaries for two weeks to record any thoughtful actions toward their partner and any actions from their partner that benefited them. They were asked to record any small, thoughtful gesture, such as picking up their partner's favorite coffee, preparing a celebratory dinner, or taking the kids out to give the other partner some quiet time.
The participants also recorded their emotional responses to these daily interactions and their overall satisfaction with the relationship. The researchers reviewed the diaries from both partners to assess the emotional responses to the partner's reported and the participant's perceived behaviors.
The study results showed gratitude was strongly associated with relationship connection and satisfaction for both men and women. The researchers suggest that extending positive emotions and gratitude to romantic partners can increase the benefit of positive thinking tenfold.
The study also shows:
- 43% of women and 36% of men said their partners did something thoughtful for them.
- 35% of women and 33% of men said they did something thoughtful for their partners.
- Participants agreed with their partners 61% of the time and disagreed 39% of the time.
- Of the days when the partner reported doing something thoughtful, the participant agreed 51.2% of the time. However 48.8% of the partner-reported thoughtful behaviors went undetected by the participant.
- Men were more likely to associate gratitude with indebtedness than women.
"Gratitude triggers a cascade of responses within the person who feels it in that very moment, changing the way the person views the generous benefactor, as well as motivations toward the benefactor," Algoe says in a news release. "This is especially true when a person shows that they care about the partner's needs and preferences. Feelings of gratitude and generosity are helpful in solidifying our relationships with people we care about, and benefit to the one giving as well as the one on the receiving end."
Small gestures of kindness and feelings of gratitude may reflect the quality of the relationship, Algoe and her team explained, whereas feelings of indebtedness toward a romantic partner may not provide such an emotional boost to the relationship.
The findings dovetail with the results of other research examining the psychological impact of gratitude and thoughtfulness. For example, a recent study published in Psychology Science also found that individuals who expressed gratitude were also those more likely to report a strong relationship.