Practicing gratitude regularly can help you achieve happiness, but studies have shown that it can also give your relationship a boost. Dr. Sara Algoe, an associate professor of social psychology at the University of North Carolina, and Dr. Andrea Hussong, UNC's director of the Center for Developmental Science and a professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, both focus their research on the very subject of gratitude. One of their studies in particular found that couples who express gratitude on a day-to-day basis have stronger relationships and overall feel more satisfied with their lives.
Before diving into the rest of their findings, we first asked Dr. Algoe to define gratitude for us. "I define gratitude as an emotion that someone can experience that someone just ignites in them," she told POPSUGAR. "A lot of people think about gratitude as being just a good feeling that they have thinking about the benefits that they have in their life . . . but if I research the way that I define gratitude, it's really between two people."
Having an impact on your partner doesn't require grand gestures, either. Something as simple as taking out the trash without being asked to or making them breakfast on a busy morning is enough to make a difference. But regardless of whether the act was big or small, their research found that the key part of the "thank you" is the "you." Dr. Algoe explained how acknowledging the thoughtfulness behind the act in a genuine way is what's most significant.
"The key piece that we find over and over again in our data is this idea of saying what it was about the person's actions that were so great," she told us. "It could be as simple as, 'You remembered my favorite color.'"
Say someone gave you a sweater, for example, and you thank them because you think the sweater will go great with the pants you just purchased. You're acknowledging how it benefits yourself rather than thanking them for going out of their way to choose a piece you love. When you switch the praise to include a "genuine acknowledgment of what it means to you," according to Dr. Hussong, it adds an emotional component.
Interestingly, Dr. Hussong and Dr. Algoe's data found that one meaningful interaction can make a partner feel more satisfied in their relationship one month to even six months later.
The benefits of gratitude can also extend beyond improving romantic relationships to promoting good health. Having a strong support system is crucial to survival, according to Dr. Algoe, in two ways: those who you can count on can help further you in life, while the comfort of having a high-quality relationship is powerful enough to benefit your health. Gratitude is then the reinforcing agent that helps maintain these relationships over time.
"The associations between good relationships and living longer is so big, it's the same size as the effect of smoking 15 cigarettes a day on dying sooner," Dr. Algoe said. "Everybody knows that smoking can shorten a life, but not many people know that having good relationships can prolong your life, is another way of saying it."