Expressing Gratitude the Right Way

Research has found that, to put it bluntly, expressing gratitude to someone who helps you keeps them interested and invested in having a relationship with you over the long haul. It makes their time, effort, and inconvenience seem worth it.

In the same vein, there is nothing quite like ingratitude to sour an otherwise happy relationship. It’s not difficult for most of us to recall a time when we were shocked at how unappreciative and thoughtless someone was in response to our generosity. Without some sort of acknowledgement, people very quickly stop wanting to help you. In fact, in a set of studies by Adam Grant and Francesca Gino, when someone wasn’t thanked for their help, their future rates of helping people were immediately cut in half.

But recent research suggests that people often make a critical mistake when expressing gratitude: They focus on how they feel — how happy they are, how they have benefited from the help — rather than focusing on the benefactor.

A recent article in Harvard Business Review by Heidi Grant Halvorson highlights research by Sara Algoe, Laura Kurtz, and Nicole Hilaire at the University of North Carolina. The researchers distinguished between two types of gratitude expressions: other-praising, which acknowledges and validates the actions of the giver, and self-benefit, which describes how the receiver is better off for having been helped.

In one of their studies, couples were observed expressing gratitude to each other for something their partner had recently done for them. Afterwards, the benefactors rated how happy they felt, how loving they felt toward their partner, and how responsive they felt the gratitude-giver had been. The researchers found that other-praising gratitude was strongly related to perceptions of responsiveness, positive emotion, and loving — but self-benefit gratitude was not.

Helpers/benefactors want to see themselves positively and to feel understood and cared for — which is difficult for them to do when the people they help won’t stop talking about themselves.

So let me thank the people who take the time to read my blog posts and to share their thoughts on what I’ve written. It is greatly appreciated.


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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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