It’s your birthday, or Christmas. A day of pleasantries and presents. Uh oh. You rip open the wrapping paper only to find a pair of socks from your earnestly smiling relatives. This rouses an awkward feeling of disappointment and a duty to seem appreciative. We know we should be grateful even when we don’t want to be. The question is, why should we generate gratitude when we don’t feel the impulse to give an earnest ‘thank you’?

To expound on the ‘why’, Glenn R. Fox of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California examined the psychological and neurobiological effects of gratitude in the context of gift-giving. Their results indicate that saying a simple ‘thank you’ is far more impactful than we might assume.

He and his collaborators found that “areas [of the brain] responsible for feelings of reward, moral cognition, subjective value judgements, fairness, economic decision-making, and self-reference” were stimulated by the gratitude associated with gift-giving. 1 Furthermore, the participants’ levels of empathy increased, meaning they were more receptive and understanding with others.

Such acts of gratitude trigger positive and highly influential neural circuits in the brain. And, as we know from my blog on ‘Neuroplasticity’, if we trigger neural circuits frequently they strengthen over time. So, saying ‘thank you’ can have an extremely positive effect on our brain’s makeup, and, subsequently, how we think, feel, and behave.

Furthermore, the act of thanking is communicative, it involves someone acknowledging an act of generosity, in effect rewarding that generosity with their own reciprocation of kindness. This means that acts of thanks actually strengthen social relationships. Studies have found that by doing something as ostensibly minor as thanking someone for opening the door for you makes the recipient more likely to seek an ongoing relationship.2 Gratitude helps us build and maintain relationships, an integral part of sustaining and forging harmonious and productive relationships in our social and working lives.

Studies have also shown that, because of the neurological and social benefits involved in saying ‘thank you’, levels of gratitude given and received has a strong correlation to psychological wellbeing. Robert Emmons, for example, found that the offering and reciprocation of gratitude link to increases in levels of happiness and help reduce depression.3 When we are in happier states we are more prosocial and active, meaning we gain more from life. Acting gratefully, therefore, is not only a social gesture but a powerful force that can considerably improve psychological wellbeing, which in turn impacts on your physical health. Saying thanks is more powerful than one might imagine.

So, gratitude is a key adhesive in our social glue and, because of this, it significantly impacts on our levels of psychological wellbeing. By practising gratitude, we will get better at it. The effects can be wondrous for our working, social and private lives. Take the opportunity to practise your gratefulness, smiling wide and thanking your relative for those socks you’ll never, ever wear.