If there are three things that people tend to have on their minds during the holiday season, it’s a) saving money, b) friends & family, and c) finding the perfect gifts for everyone on their lists. With this in mind, why not step outside of the box when it comes to this year’s stocking stuffers? More specifically, why fill others’ stockings with material gifts when, instead, you can use your stockings to forge better, stronger relationships?

In our everyday lives, emotions often function to guide our motivations and behavior. And when it comes to improving your social (and romantic) relationships, it's hard to think of an emotion that could be more helpful in that quest than gratitude. For example, gratitude has been described by Sara Algoe and her “gratitude research” colleagues as a relationship “booster shot” — regular expressions of gratitude can help strengthen & improve existing relationships.

Feeling grateful can also facilitate the very important happy-relationship factors of (1) relationship commitment (i.e., feeling highly invested in and committed to preserving one's current relationship) and (2) relationship maintenance behaviors (i.e., doing things that you may not necessarily want to do because it will benefit your partner or your relationship, like spending a Sunday afternoon with your husband's annoying friend, getting all dressed up in uncomfortable clothing to go to your wife's office holiday party, or doing the chores that you know your partner hates).

In one study, when people felt more appreciative towards their partners, they were more likely to report feeling highly committed to their relationships and they were more likely to still be in those relationships when they were re-contacted by researchers 9 months later. People who reported feeling more appreciative towards their partners were also rated by outside observers as acting more responsively to their partners during videotaped interactions (e.g., appreciative partners asked more clarifying questions in response to their partners' concerns, were more likely to validate their partners' experiences as important, and said "I love you" more frequently). Research by Samantha Joel and colleagues further revealed that when people were specifically prompted to think about what their partners have invested in their relationships, they ended up trusting their partners more and reported higher levels of gratitude towards them -- which then led to higher levels of commitment to those relationships, even when measured a full 9 months later.

Long story short, this is the good stuff that happens in gratitude-expressing relationships. Click to embiggen.

In another study that specifically looked at how expressions of gratitude impact relationship maintenance behaviors, Kubacka and colleagues followed 195 newlywed couples for the first 3 years of their marriage, checking in with them approximately once a year. As illustrated in the cycle on the right, at each one of the three time points, for each one of the spouses, Spouse A’s perception of Spouse B’s responsiveness predicted Spouse A’s gratitude -- which, in turn, predicted how likely Spouse A was to do good things that would benefit the relationship. In turn, Spouse A's performance of these nice, relationship-benefiting behaviors predicted Spouse B's perception of how responsive Spouse A was to his/her wants, needs, concerns, and experiences, which led Spouse B to feel higher levels of gratitude. This even extended over time; perceiving partners as more responsive predicted gratitude a full year later, and levels of gratitude predicted relationship maintenance behaviors a full year later, even when controlling for the "reverse effect" that relationship maintenance behaviors have on gratitude. In short, all of these positive, mushy, good-for-your-relationship thoughts and behaviors feed into each other like a giant cycle -- feeling and expressing gratitude towards your loved ones leads to more responsive & caring partners and more of those nice, prosocial behaviors that we should all be doing for the ones we love.

Not only this, but expressing gratitude doesn't only benefit the person receiving the thanks. In one study by Amie Gordon and colleagues, 57 married couples filled out "daily diaries" every night for two weeks, reporting how much gratitude they felt and expressed towards their spouses that day, how much gratitude their spouses had expressed towards them, and how satisfied they were with their relationships. The more gratitude that people felt and expressed towards their spouses, the happier they were with their own relationships, showing that it's not only your partner who gets a boost when you let them know that you appreciate their extra hard work around the house -- feeling and expressing gratitude will make you feel happier with your own relationship as well.

In addition to the many ways in which gratitude specifically benefits relationships, personally experiencing gratitude is also related to possessing the trait of humility. Humility is a good personality trait for people to have; humble people are distinctly more focused on others than on themselves, they have a balanced, accurate awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses, they aren't arrogant, and they have a strong, positive sense of others’ worth. Gratitude — which results when people recognize that they have benefited from the actions of others — specifically requires this awareness of the strengths and virtues of other people, and recognition of the areas in which the self might need assistance or further guidance. By redirecting focus away from the self and towards others, people who experience gratitude are more likely to focus on others in a positive way, creating an upward spiral where (a) gratitude makes people more humble, and (b) humility makes people more likely to experience gratitude. This is a very good thing, since the trait of humility is related to multiple prosocial outcomes -- more humble people are more likely to volunteer for charities, offer to help a classmate when given the opportunity, act generously towards others, and cooperate in group activities.

Finally, we’re all likely familiar with the idea of the honeymoon phase, and the dreaded loss of passion (and overall relationship satisfaction) that we assume accompanies all long-term relationships and marriages over time. But it may not be inevitable, and — you guessed it — our new favorite emotion of gratitude may be the key. According to research by Katherine Bao and Sonja Lyubomirsky on the Hedonic Adaptation Prevention Model (building on earlier research by Kahneman and Thaler on hedonic adaptation itself), people have the tendency to adapt to positive life changes over time. Sure, that big promotion you just got might give you a rush of excitement at first — but after a few months, it’s not like you’re waking up every morning feeling a new wave of happiness due to that one big success. Relationships can, unfortunately, be the same way — the initial rush of happiness that you may feel upon a relationship’s beginning can, sadly, fade away over time as people “get used” to their mundane, everyday lives with their partners and start to take their partners for granted. With this in mind, it makes sense that Bao and Lyubomirsky determined that building a culture of appreciation and gratitude within your relationship to prevent that “taking for granted” phenomenon can increase relationship satisfaction and slow that "honeymoon phase is over" adaptation process. In their words, “When a person no longer attends to and appreciates his partner, he will essentially stop garnering any positivity or benefit from having a partner, which is the very definition of adaptation” (Bao & Lyubomirsky, 2013). Verbally expressing gratitude for your partner and appreciating all of the positive events that you experience together, no matter how small, can infuse your relationship with new bursts of happiness, keeping the “honeymoon period” alive and well for much longer than it might have stuck around otherwise.

These were our stocking-stuffer notes to each other on the same day in 2012. Clearly, we take indulgent foods seriously in our household.

So, all of this has been leading me to my Stocking Stuffer Suggestion for Christmas 2014. For the remainder of the days until Christmas (or any later date, if you do not celebrate Christmas), each member of a friendship/romantic relationship/family should write one daily thing for which they are grateful about the other person on a small piece of paper, and then place it in the other person’s stocking. These can range from small expressions of gratitude (e.g. “I’m grateful that you split your last Oreo with me after dinner!”) or larger, more value-laden expressions (e.g. “I’m grateful that you are such a kind parent to our children” or “I’m grateful that you were there to support me emotionally and financially when I was fired.”) After a period of several days, open up your stockings together and read through your loved ones’ daily gratitudes. It’s a simple way to feel better about your social, romantic, and familial relationships, to feel bright and rosy during the holiday season, and to strengthen your social bonds. And, as an additional perk, it’s completely free!

Plus, it’s a gift that’s been supported by scientific research. What’s not to love?!


References

Algoe, S.B., Fredrickson, B.L., & Gable, S.L. (2013). The social functions of the emotion of gratitude via expression. Emotion, 13, 605-609.

Algoe, S. B., Gable, S. L., & Maisel, N. C. (2010). It’s the little things: Everyday gratitude as a booster shot for romantic relationships. Personal Relationships, 17, 217–233.

Bao, K. J., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2013). Making it last: Combating hedonic adaptation in romantic relationships. Journal of Positive Psychology, 8, 196-206.

Bartlett, M.Y., Condon, P., Cruz, J., Baumann, J., & Desteno, D. (2012). Gratitude: Prompting behaviours that build relationships. Cognition and Emotion, 26, 2-13.

Chang, Y-P., Li, T-S., Teng, H.Y., Berki, A., & Chen, L.H. (2013). Living with gratitude: Spouse’s gratitude on one’s depression. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14, 1431-1442.

Exline, J. J., & Hill, P. C. (2012). Humility: A consistent and robust predictor of generosity. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 7, 208–218.

Gordon, C.L., Arnette, R.A.M., & Smith, R.E. (2011). Have you thanked your spouse today? Felt and expressed gratitude among married couples. Personality and Individual Differences, 50, 339-343.

Gordon, A.M., & Chen, S. (2010). When you accept me for me: The relational benefits of intrinsic affirmations from one’s relationship partner. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 1439-1453.

Gordon, A. M., Impett, E. A., Kogan, A., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2012). To have and to hold: Gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103, 257-274.

Gordon, A.M., Tuskeviciute, R., & Chen, S. (2013). A multimethod investigation of depressive symptoms, perceived understanding, and relationship quality. Personal Relationships, 20, 635-654.

Joel, S., Gordon, A.M., Impett, E.A., MacDonald, G., & Keltner, D. (2013). The things you do for me: Perceptions of a romantic partner’s investments promote gratitude and commitment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1333-1345.

Kahneman, D., & Thaler, R. H. (2006). Anomalies: Utility maximization and experienced utility. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 20, 221-234.

Kruse, E., Chancellor, J., Ruberton, P.M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2014). An upward spiral between gratitude and humility. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5, 805-814.

Kubacka, K.E., Finkenauer, C., Rusbult, C.E., & Keijsers, L. (2011). Maintaining close relationships: Gratitude as a motivator and a detector of maintenance behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 1362-1375.

Image Credits

Stockings: Author's personal photograph

Notes: Author's personal photograph

Present Pile: Stock image photograph available via Christmas Stock Images.

Thank You Word Cloud: Image by Pixabay user Tumisu. Public domain art available via Pixabay.

Cycle Diagram: Created by the author based on data from Kubacka et al., 2011.

Notes

For an earlier version of this post citing slightly different research, please see here. You can also check out a prior PsySociety post on the benefits of gratitude from Thanksgiving 2013.