Society & Culture

Research shows it pays to practice gratitude

Appreciation makes the heart grow fonder

Not sure what to give your sweetheart for Valentine’s Day this year? Flowers, chocolate and spa days are nice, but don’t discount the value of a heartfelt “thank you.”

That’s especially true for married couples, according to University of Georgia researcher Allen W. Barton.

“One of the best things you can give your spouse is a compliment,” said Barton. And not the “I like what you’ve done with your hair” variety. Barton means showing gratitude for what your spouse does for your marriage and family.

Assistant Research Scientist Allen Barton.

“When one spouse expresses gratitude, the other feels appreciated. And when you feel appreciated, you’re more likely to invest in the relationship,” said Barton, who studies family dynamics as an assistant research scientist at the College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

A study, conducted by Barton in 2015, found that feelings of gratitude boosted marital satisfaction, commitment and stability, especially during difficult times. In the study, couples who had mismatched and counterproductive styles of conflict—the kind where one spouse would bring up everything wrong, while the other went quiet and withdrew—could withstand the dysfunction with something called “perceived gratitude.”

“As long as they felt appreciated by their spouse, they weren’t thinking about divorce as much,” said Barton.

Barton offered this guidance for bringing gratitude and appreciation into your relationship:

What if my spouse hasn’t done anything worth complimenting?

If you’re thinking more about what you wish your spouse had done rather than appreciating what they actually do, it might be because you’re not seeing what your spouse is putting in—or at least is trying to put into—the relationship. After all, people tend to be more aware of the work they put in than what others are doing.

“Start with the recognition that we’re all prone to be a little more self-centered than we might realize,” Barton said. “You have to be aware of it. We’re not as fair and objective as we’d like to think.”

So, acknowledge that your spouse might have been making an effort in areas you don’t see.

“Even if you feel very much unappreciated by your partner, still work to find one thing where you can express appreciation to them,” Barton said. “You never know what effect it may have over time.”

How to start the conversation.

If you’re not sure whether your spouse feels appreciated, you could try asking.

“Start by telling them the reason,” Barton said. “‘I want you to feel valued in this relationship’ and then simply ask ‘Is there any area in our relationship where you feel unappreciated?’”

If so, ask how you can change that.

“But if you’re going to ask that question, pick a good time to do it,” he said, “not while you’re putting the kids to bed or in a period of conflict.”

There are many ways to say thank you.

When it comes to expressing gratitude, you could just say thank you. But Barton said there are other options that might be more meaningful to your spouse.

“There are gifts, cards, words. You could send them a text midday, leave a note or take them out,” he said.

Of course, expressing gratitude is only one component of a healthy marriage. And what is a problem for one marriage may never come up in another.

 “There is no magic pill,” Barton said. “Expressing appreciation isn’t going to cure a troubled marriage, but it is a step in the right direction.”

So amid the flowers, chocolates and heart-shaped candies of Valentine’s Day, try letting gratitude be a gift offered all year long.