Promoting well-being for people and organizations through gratitude, Vol. 1—The benefits of gratitude

As the frequency with which people are going to the office has shifted amid the prevalence of remote work for some companies or jobs, have you noticed a decrease in opportunities to meet and talk to your colleagues in person?

Everyone feels happy when they are appreciated by others. As such, most people would probably agree that receiving thanks has a positive psychological effect. But what if we were to tell you that thanking others also offers psychological benefits to the person doing the thanking?

In today’s column, we will focus on how you can benefit yourself and your organization by expressing gratitude.

The direct effect of expressing gratitude

According to empirical research by Professor Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association and a proponent of “positive psychology,” expressing gratitude appears to increase happiness and decrease depression (Seligman, Steen, Park & Peterson, 2005).

The study explored the effects of practicing five happiness exercises, including expressing gratitude, on happiness and depression. As a benchmark for the five exercises, placebo-controlled subjects were assigned the exercise of writing about their early childhood memories every night for one week.

Among the five exercises was the “gratitude visit,” in which participants were given one week to write and then deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who had been especially kind to them but had never been properly thanked.

After completing the gratitude visit, participants reported higher happiness scores and lower depression scores. Moreover, compared with the other four happiness exercises, the difference in scores between the benchmark group and the gratitude visit group was greater, indicating the significant benefit that gratitude offers. Follow-up assessments, however, revealed that this positive change lasts for only one month.

As this study indicates, expressing gratitude leads to a direct positive psychological impact on the person giving thanks and improves well-being. But these positive effects can be short-lived if the person expressing gratitude stops doing so. Therefore, the key to continuing to benefit from the positive effects of gratitude is to continuously express it.

The indirect effects of gratitude

Next, let’s look at research that reveals the kind of benefits that grateful people receive when they give thanks.

Sakai & Aikawa (2021) conducted an experiment based on the so-called “prisoner’s dilemma” game. The experiment employed pairs comprising a confederate, namely a person posing as a participant but actually aiding the researchers, and a subject, who was unaware of how the experiment would be conducted. The pair played multiple rounds of the hand game Rock Paper Scissors, but were only allowed to use either “rock” or “paper,” with points awarded in accordance with Figure 1, below.

In the experiment, when both players issued “rocks,” they would each receive 40 points, a pairing that was considered “cooperative behavior.” But when the confederate issued “rock” and the subject issued “paper,” the subject could earn 100 points. This choice was the dilemma that the subject faced.

Figure 1: Points that each player could earn, based on Sakai & Aikawa (2021)

In the experiment, when the subject engaged in cooperative behavior for the first time, the confederate would express his or her appreciation, saying, “Thank you for issuing ‘rock.’” By comparison, in the control group, which served as the benchmark, when the subject engaged in cooperative behavior, the confederate would remain expressionless.

The results of the experiment indicated that the group that expressed gratitude recorded a higher incidence of cooperative behavior than the group that did not show any appreciation. Additionally, post-experiment survey scores showed that subjects felt greater reciprocity consciousness* and interpersonal attraction toward the confederates that expressed gratitude than toward those that did not.

Accordingly, it would appear that demonstrating gratitude in this way not only has the effect of getting the person who receives your appreciation to form a favorable impression of you, but in terms of paving the way for building cooperative relationships, also has a beneficial impact from the perspective of organizational behavior.

Additionally, research has shown that people who recognize that they have often experienced being thanked by others have also frequently experienced expressing gratitude to others (Ito, 2014, p. 944). Thus, you could say that gratitude lends itself to launching a chain of appreciative behavior.

We have learned that being grateful benefits the person giving thanks both directly and indirectly.

Additionally, in organizations that have more people and more opportunities to be grateful, there is a greater likelihood that chains of appreciative behavior will occur more frequently.

In such organizations, it is easy to maintain a state in which there are many people who are grateful and thus enjoy high levels of happiness, as well as many who receive appreciation and thus view their colleagues in a highly positive light. Such conditions make it possible to sustain well-being not only for individuals but also for the organization.

In addition, since there will be a higher awareness of mutual cooperation, it will make it easier to foster a culture that enables the organization to achieve high levels of performance as a consolidated team.

To intentionally and proactively reap the benefits that gratitude has to offer, what kind of mechanisms should be created within organizations? In the next installment, we will introduce one effective approach, based on a Rakuten Group case study, to expressing gratitude even under remote working conditions.

* Reciprocity consciousness in this experiment refers to a state in which subjects have a positive view of the mutually supportive relationship they share with the confederate.

Works cited:

Ito, T. (2014). The relationships among experience of being appreciated, frequency of emotion experience, and achievement motivation. The Proceedings of the 78th Annual Convention of the Japanese Psychological Association, 944.

Sakai, T. & Aikawa, A. (2021). The effect of gratitude-expression skills on the benefactor in a dilemma situation. Japanese Journal of Social Psychology 36 (3), 65-75.

Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions. American Psychologist, 60 (5), 410–421.