Expressing gratitude nurtures our relationships, helping us to feel closer to our friends and romantic partners. Some research suggests that grateful people seem to cope better with stress and enjoy superior physical health, perhaps because of those stronger social relationships.
What about experiencing gratitude with people we don’t know so well—like those we work with? Could showing appreciation towards them affect our stress levels on the job?
A new study aimed to find out.
The researchers paired up university suitemates who were acquainted but not close, which they thought would mimick the kinds of relationships people have at work (sometimes called “loose ties”). One student in each dyad was designated as the “expresser” and the other as the “receiver,” with some expressers told to start a conversation by sharing something about their day and others sharing something they appreciated about their partner. Some gratitude expressers appreciated small things (like how a partner ran an errand for them one time) and others appreciated bigger things (like how a partner switched around a class schedule to accommodate them).
Following the conversation, the students reported on how grateful they felt. Then, researchers gave them the task of collaboratively creating a new bicycle design, a market plan, and a sales pitch—all in only six minutes. Following that, each member of the dyad was given three minutes to individually pitch their product to evaluators, who sat stony-faced during their presentation. Since the students were told they were competing for a monetary prize, they were motivated to do well under these extremely challenging and stressful situations. As these experiments unfolded, the researchers monitored the students’ cardiovascular responses.
How did gratitude affect their stress? Those in the gratitude dyads had superior stress profiles, with their hearts pumping out more blood and their vasculature more dilated, allowing more oxygen to reach their brains and bodies—a helpful profile for stressful challenges. Those in the other condition—where they only shared something about their day—exhibited stronger threat responses under pressure (with more vasoconstriction), suggesting they had worse profiles for coping with stress.
This finding shows that gratitude could help people cope better at work, argues study coauthor Christopher Oveis, director of the Empathy & Emotion Lab at the University of California, San Diego.
“When people have to perform in front of others—like, when they have to pitch ideas to their boss or interview for a job—some people rise to the challenge and have an efficient cardiovascular response while others don’t,” he says. “In our study, during the collaborative task, gratitude seemed to serve as a buffer against threat responses, and it amplified a person’s challenge response during individual performance tasks.”
No one knows exactly why gratitude might affect our cardiovascular system this way. But Oveis says gratitude makes people remember their social resources, which could be helpful when they’re facing difficult situations. Also, receiving appreciation from another person increases one’s self-confidence, he says—and that can be helpful for managing stress, too.
“Expressing gratitude can psychologically buffer us against the threatening effects of social evaluation by reminding us that we are valued by others,” he says.
People don’t always express gratitude when they feel it, though, says Oveis, as they fear doing so would feel awkward, not be appreciated, or decrease their own status somehow. However, research shows people actually appreciate receiving gratitude—more than we might expect—and that people who show appreciation for others are seen as warmer and more competent than those who don’t.
Also, exhibiting a good cardiovascular stress profile during challenging tasks has been tied to better performance. Though Oveis and his colleagues didn’t actually measure performance in their study, he hopes to study it in future research, as well as replicate his findings in an actual work setting.
In the meantime, his current findings add to a growing body of research on the positive effects of experiencing gratitude by showing how it helps working dyads manage stress, even if individuals are only loosely connected. To him, this suggests we should practice expressing gratitude more, not less.
“The implication here is that you should let your gratitude out when you feel it,” says Oveis. “That’s not to say that you should go around and make up gratitude expressions for no reason. But, when you genuinely feel gratitude, you should express it.”
— Jill Suttie, Psy.D., serves as a staff writer and contributing editor for Greater Good. Based at UC-Berkeley, Greater Good highlights ground breaking scientific research into the roots of compassion and altruism. Copyright Greater Good.
To Learn More:
- Q&A with Dr. Wendy Suzuki on the parasympathetic nervous system and harnessing anxiety for good
- Study: A few slow-paced breaths are enough to significantly reduce physiological stress
- Exploring the human brain and how it responds to stress
- Study shows how practicing gratitude can help train your brain and improve mental health over time