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Well Said: How Gratitude Affects Your Body and Brain

Sara Algoe, associate professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience, explains how gratitude can transform our lives and relationships.

It’s tradition for many families to go around the table at Thanksgiving and say all the things they’re thankful for. This practice of gratitude, according to associate professor of social psychology Sara Algoe, is actually beneficial to our health and relationships.

In this episode of Well Said, Algoe describes the positive effects of gratitude on our lives, including improvements in physical health. Listen in for helpful tips on how to practice gratitude daily.

Listen to this episode on SoundCloud, where you can also find more great episodes of Well Said.

Join us every Wednesday for the University’s podcast as we talk with Carolina’s newsmakers and experts. Each episode, students, faculty, staff and alumni will discuss what’s going on in classrooms, labs and around campus, and how it pertains to the local, national and international headlines.

This episode of Well Said includes music by Twin Musicom (“For Mimi”) and Geographer (“After All”).


[ALGOE] I really haven’t been able to stop studying gratitude since I started because I keep finding something new. And I think; if that’s true, then this next thing must be true. And one of the things that I think is so interesting about it is when we feel grateful to other peopleand we naturally express it it can really solidify our relationship with them.

[HOST] That was associate professor Sara Algoe from the department of psychology here at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And this is Well Said, our official storytelling podcast.

[HOST] Some people and department stores skip right from Halloween to Christmas decorations, but not here at Carolina! Happy Thanksgiving, listeners! This is the time of year when we’re all encouraged to pause and give thanks, and while it may just be a part of your Thanksgiving tradition, Sara’s research indicates the practice of gratitude has mental and even physical benefits.

[ALGOE] So apparently officially there are more grateful people in the world and those more grateful people tend to have benefits. They have more happiness in their lives. They’re usually less depressed. That’s a that’s a big one, Less anxiety, greater satisfaction with life, less materialistic, more helpful.

[HOST] That’s not too surprising, right? The more thankful you are for the things around you, the happier you become as a person. When it comes to her research, Sara takes this concept and splits it into two different definitions to more accurately explain what we’re actually feeling and expressing.

[ALGOE] So we know that people in the world really think about gratitude in two main ways. One is this broader feeling of appreciation for the things that we have, so you might be thankful for the blue sky or grateful for your health.

And then the other way that people kind of stereotypically think of gratitude is the way that I think of it as an emotion. And that’s an emotion that we feel when someone else does something nice for us. You don’t always feel grateful when someone else does something nice for you. You might wonder why they did that for you or what they were thinking. You know, why would I…why would I…why did they think I would want that? But sometimes you feel grateful. And that is, in my research I’ve characterized that as the emotional experience of gratitude and then the other one that I described as kind of that appreciation for the good things in your life just for me linguistically so that I can separate what I’m studying from from one another. I call that appreciation but we often in our everyday lives think of it as gratitude.

[HOST] So, Sara’s determined two similar ways we can be grateful in life. First, being appreciative – that is, appreciating the job you have, the sunshine in the morning, or being in good health. The second is a more emotional expression of gratitude, especially when someone does something considerate for us. But in the end, it’s all a means of being grateful, and therefore has a big impact on our lives.

[ALGOE] The two categories that are the most well documented are really mental health and and then also relational health, I guess is what you call it. And there are some people who are working on physical health outcomes and that’s really exciting for me. It’s a really exciting area of research especially because…this is one of my most fun facts that I’ve been I think I learned it – I don’t know maybe eight years ago or 6 or something 6 years ago – and it really has started to motivate my research program, and that is that having people who we can depend on is as good for living longer as smoking is bad…ok…let me say it a different way…

[HOST] What Sara is trying to say is that for the amount that smoking has been proven to be harmful to your body, being grateful and practicing gratitude have the same level of impact, but good!

[ALGOE]  So when I say that gratitude is good for shoring up really close relationships to me that really matters because having good relationships is actually essential to survival. Close relationships are so impactful to so many aspects of our everyday lives. And we know that having good relationship partners is not only important for mental health but also for physical health. Just the everyday kind of physical health – maybe having somebody who actually cares if you go to the doctor. But then but then all of these other data suggests that it has this really long term implication.

[HOST] It’s obvious that expressing gratitude toward those who are closest to us, or those who have influence on our choices, has positive benefits for our relationships, as well as our own minds and bodies. But, what about…well, everyone else? To explain this relationship, Sara developed her own theory.

[ALGOE] When you experience the emotion of gratitude to somebody it does momentarily link you closer. People report that they – in the moment that they feel great gratitude they’re kind of reminded of the good qualities of the person. And so it might be a stranger on the street. And that’s why, so my my theory about gratitude is called the find, remind, and bind theory. And so the find part is that it helps us to find people who might be good social partners and so that might really might be the stranger on the bus who you know pick something up and you think you might never see them again. But the gratitude that you feel might make you kind of remember them and maybe you’ll see them on the street some other time and you kind of just have a fond feeling for them and so that’s OK.

So that’s the find part. But it also could be somebody who’s in your class and you’ve never met them before, and they help you out with something and then you go and have repeated interactions with them, and so then you’ll have more of an opportunity to actually develop a friendship with that person. And then the “remind” is people that we know and maybe even people we expect to do things for us – our mothers for example – many of us take their actions for granted but those moments when you feel grateful to them.

It’s this opportunity, and you kind of, oh that’s what I love about you or your best friend or your boss sometimes like oh yeah that’s nice. And so it is in the moment an opportunity to make a connection. And those changes in your own cognitions in your own motivations and potentially behaviors toward that person. My research suggests can actually draw that person further into the relationship.

[HOST] So, gratitude can help us find those who may be good partners or friends, reminds us of the good qualities in the people in our lives, and ultimately brings us closer to them. Sounds to me like Thanksgiving should be celebrated every day, right?

[ALGOE] There’s quite a few people working on this question of how you can kind of cultivate your own gratitude, and one of the more effective ways is to regularly jot down little things that you’re grateful for. And so making a habit of stopping to notice. And so there’s two things that I want to say about that. Ane is that we are busy. People are busy. In fact, I just heard somebody kind of talk about our obsession with being busy it’s almost like a sport these days. And so one of the things that we know about being stressed is that we actually become really self-focused, and focused on whatever is happening next. And so, one of the things about cultivating a practice is actually you’re just pausing to remember that there are good things in your life.

You’re stepping out of being busy and just taking a moment to remember that, and then that can bring a momentary dose of positive emotion. And over time it looks like people who do that actually can get a little peace of mind. And peace of mind; I mean they seem to be happier over time.

And then the other part of that is that the more effective way to do it seems to be to again, focus on the things that other people have done for you, and maybe even kind of phrasing it as an expression of gratitude like, “oh this person did this great thing for me and I really appreciate that they did that.” Even if you’re just writing it down you don’t have to say something to them, but just kind of acknowledging. And I think that piece probably goes back to the fact that we are social. And it reminds us, “oh yeah that person at work that I never talked to – they were looking out for me today.” That’s kind of nice to know that I’m in that kind of environment.” And so it’s just those little reminders.

[HOST] Time for me to do a little gratitude myself. Thank you all so much for listening to this episode of Well Said, the official storytelling podcast from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. If you’re interested in learning more about Sara or the research her and her students are performing, visit our department of psychology and neuroscience at psychology.unc.edu.

Do you have an idea for an upcoming episode of Well Said? Send us at Tweet @UNC or shoot us an email at WellSaid@UNC.edu. You can find Well Said wherever you get podcasts, so we hope you’ll subscribe and leave us a review. See you next week.