Home Featured Post Study: Practicing gratitude helps lower physiological stress levels of the “expresser” AND the “receiver”

Study: Practicing gratitude helps lower physiological stress levels of the “expresser” AND the “receiver”

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Express­ing grat­i­tude nur­tures our rela­tion­ships, help­ing us to feel clos­er to our friends and roman­tic part­ners. Some research sug­gests that grate­ful peo­ple seem to cope bet­ter with stress and enjoy supe­ri­or phys­i­cal health, per­haps because of those stronger social relationships.

What about expe­ri­enc­ing grat­i­tude with peo­ple we don’t know so well—like those we work with? Could show­ing appre­ci­a­tion towards them affect our stress lev­els on the job?

A new study aimed to find out.

The researchers paired up uni­ver­si­ty suit­e­m­ates who were acquaint­ed but not close, which they thought would mim­ick the kinds of rela­tion­ships peo­ple have at work (some­times called “loose ties”). One stu­dent in each dyad was des­ig­nat­ed as the “express­er” and the oth­er as the “receiv­er,” with some expressers told to start a con­ver­sa­tion by shar­ing some­thing about their day and oth­ers shar­ing some­thing they appre­ci­at­ed about their part­ner. Some grat­i­tude expressers appre­ci­at­ed small things (like how a part­ner ran an errand for them one time) and oth­ers appre­ci­at­ed big­ger things (like how a part­ner switched around a class sched­ule to accom­mo­date them).

Fol­low­ing the con­ver­sa­tion, the stu­dents report­ed on how grate­ful they felt. Then, researchers gave them the task of col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly cre­at­ing a new bicy­cle design, a mar­ket plan, and a sales pitch—all in only six min­utes. Fol­low­ing that, each mem­ber of the dyad was giv­en three min­utes to indi­vid­u­al­ly pitch their prod­uct to eval­u­a­tors, who sat stony-faced dur­ing their pre­sen­ta­tion. Since the stu­dents were told they were com­pet­ing for a mon­e­tary prize, they were moti­vat­ed to do well under these extreme­ly chal­leng­ing and stress­ful sit­u­a­tions. As these exper­i­ments unfold­ed, the researchers mon­i­tored the stu­dents’ car­dio­vas­cu­lar responses.

How did grat­i­tude affect their stress? Those in the grat­i­tude dyads had supe­ri­or stress pro­files, with their hearts pump­ing out more blood and their vas­cu­la­ture more dilat­ed, allow­ing more oxy­gen to reach their brains and bodies—a help­ful pro­file for stress­ful chal­lenges. Those in the oth­er condition—where they only shared some­thing about their day—exhibited stronger threat respons­es under pres­sure (with more vaso­con­stric­tion), sug­gest­ing they had worse pro­files for cop­ing with stress.

This find­ing shows that grat­i­tude could help peo­ple cope bet­ter at work, argues study coau­thor Christo­pher Oveis, direc­tor of the Empa­thy & Emo­tion Lab at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, San Diego.

When peo­ple have to per­form in front of others—like, when they have to pitch ideas to their boss or inter­view for a job—some peo­ple rise to the chal­lenge and have an effi­cient car­dio­vas­cu­lar response while oth­ers don’t,” he says. “In our study, dur­ing the col­lab­o­ra­tive task, grat­i­tude seemed to serve as a buffer against threat respons­es, and it ampli­fied a person’s chal­lenge response dur­ing indi­vid­ual per­for­mance tasks.”

No one knows exact­ly why grat­i­tude might affect our car­dio­vas­cu­lar sys­tem this way. But Oveis says grat­i­tude makes peo­ple remem­ber their social resources, which could be help­ful when they’re fac­ing dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions. Also, receiv­ing appre­ci­a­tion from anoth­er per­son increas­es one’s self-con­fi­dence, he says—and that can be help­ful for man­ag­ing stress, too.

Express­ing grat­i­tude can psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly buffer us against the threat­en­ing effects of social eval­u­a­tion by remind­ing us that we are val­ued by oth­ers,” he says.

Peo­ple don’t always express grat­i­tude when they feel it, though, says Oveis, as they fear doing so would feel awk­ward, not be appre­ci­at­ed, or decrease their own sta­tus some­how. How­ev­er, research shows peo­ple actu­al­ly appre­ci­ate receiv­ing gratitude—more than we might expect—and that peo­ple who show appre­ci­a­tion for oth­ers are seen as warmer and more com­pe­tent than those who don’t.

Also, exhibit­ing a good car­dio­vas­cu­lar stress pro­file dur­ing chal­leng­ing tasks has been tied to bet­ter per­for­mance. Though Oveis and his col­leagues didn’t actu­al­ly mea­sure per­for­mance in their study, he hopes to study it in future research, as well as repli­cate his find­ings in an actu­al work setting.

In the mean­time, his cur­rent find­ings add to a grow­ing body of research on the pos­i­tive effects of expe­ri­enc­ing grat­i­tude by show­ing how it helps work­ing dyads man­age stress, even if indi­vid­u­als are only loose­ly con­nect­ed. To him, this sug­gests we should prac­tice express­ing grat­i­tude more, not less.

The impli­ca­tion here is that you should let your grat­i­tude out when you feel it,” says Oveis. “That’s not to say that you should go around and make up grat­i­tude expres­sions for no rea­son. But, when you gen­uine­ly feel grat­i­tude, you should express it.”

— Jill Sut­tie, Psy.D., serves as a staff writer and con­tribut­ing edi­tor for Greater Good. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

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