Everyone knows healthy relationships require effective communication, but are all communication strategies equal? Take Thumper’s well-worn advice for instance: “If you can’t say something nice don’t say nuthin’ at all.”
On the surface, the principle seems sound. But if this tactic hasn’t been working for you lately, you may find it comforting to know you’re not alone. With all due respect to Bambi’s flop-eared friend, several studies have piled up over the years suggesting that silence may not really be the best solution to communication problems.
In fact, say researchers, “avoidant” strategies (such as saying “nuthin’ at all”) actually reduce intimacy and erect barriers to resolving conflict: they are every bit as destructive to relationships as yelling and name-calling. That said, saying something nice still beats both alternatives—especially when “something nice” includes expressing gratitude.
Most of us would have no trouble understanding why expressing gratitude to our partner strengthens his or her investment in the relationship, but in 2010, researcher Nathaniel Lambert and his colleagues found that it also increases the strength of our own sense of personal investment in the relationship. The simple exercise of finding as few as five things to express gratitude about each week may be the simplest and most effective first step toward bringing couples and families closer together.
What if you can find nothing to be grateful for? Is that the time to invoke the cliché and “say nothing at all?” Not so, say researchers. We need to find constructive ways to talk about the issues that bother us. Neglecting positive strategies could potentially be as detrimental to relationship quality as falling into destructive strategies, which include the use of inflammatory or emotional language, accusations, yelling or criticism.
Unfortunately, the prevailing attitude seems to be anti-gratitude, says Robert Emmons, a UC Davis professor who has focused on gratitude since 1998. His 2007 book Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier explored the benefits and societal barriers to making the most of this important emotion.
“Outside of happiness, gratitude’s benefits are rarely discussed these days,” he wrote. “Indeed, in contemporary American society, we’ve come to overlook, dismiss or even disparage the significance of gratitude as a virtue.” As a result, he says, “We have become entitled, resentful, ungrateful and forgetful.”
Nevertheless, the research on gratitude continues to underscore its importance. Not only are grateful couples happier in their relationships, Berkeley researchers reiterated on February 5th, but levels of gratitude felt by partners can even predict who will break up and who will still be together months down the road.
Worse, the literature suggests that people who have a hard time finding reasons for gratitude may also find themselves with impaired psychological as well as physical health. Among its physical health benefits, gratitude strengthens the immune system and lowers blood pressure, says Emmons. It supports mental health by blocking negative emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret. There’s even evidence, he writes, that “gratitude can reduce the frequency and duration of episodes of depression.”
If your relationship is already suffering from lack of gratitude, please do yourself a huge favor and read “Love, Honor, and Thank” by researchers Jess Alberts and Angela Threthewey. And I promise you won’t regret following that up with “Why Gratitude is Good,” by Emmons himself.
Gratitude, like Thumper’s greens, is a “special treat,” fortifying our relationships with vital nutrients. A daily dose of thankfulness may not make for “long ears and great big feet,” but it protects us from attitudes that poison our communication and threaten our personal well-being. Fortunately, no matter how long we have been suffering from a gratitude deficiency, it’s never too late to add it to our family’s daily diet.