What You’re Getting Wrong About Gratitude

One of the first things we learn about manners as a kid is to use our “please” and “thank yous” early and often. But we’re not teaching it right, because everyone is doing it wrong and they’re doing it wrong in a variety of ways. So here’s a refresher on how not to effectively express true gratitude.

Saying “thanks” doesn’t always make you seem grateful

My husband recently told me I should write a post telling people to stop using “thanks” multiple times in professional emails. You don’t need to thank someone for their email, thank them for whatever they said in the email and then sign it off with a final “Thanks,” he argued. It comes off as insincere at best and annoying at worst.

If a co-worker helped you out, by all means, express your gratitude. But to make it a default way of communicating, where a “thanks” means the same as a “see you later,” takes some of the power out of the sentiment.

Sometimes even when you’re sincere, you go overboard

Have you ever known someone who has a tendency to thank you 17 times for that one quick favor you did for them? It’s actually more annoying than someone not thanking you at all. If it’s common for people to say things to you like, “It’s fine, really. You’ve already thanked me! SERIOUSLY IT WAS NOT A BIG DEAL,” then you may be going too far.

For the person on the receiving end of the overabundant thanks, it can start to feel like a burden to assure the person that you’ve heard and received their gratitude, it was perfectly sufficient and now you’d like to move on with your life. One (sincere) “thank you” is just the right amount.

The gratitude journal isn’t enough

Making a daily habit out of taking in all that you’re thankful for is wonderful. You might reflect on your good health, the beautiful weather, the easy commute to work or the friend you’re meeting for dinner later. You can write it down, incorporate it into a daily meditation or just take a few moments a day to reflect on the good. Gratitude leads to contentment and we could all strive to be a little more content.

But that’s not where gratitude ends. Heidi Grant, a social psychologist and researcher, writes for the Harvard Business Review that gratitude’s main role in our lives is to strengthen the relationships we rely on.

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.

So write it, sure, but consider whether you need to say it, too.

It’s actually not about you

Even when we really mean it, we’re thanking people all wrong, Grants writes in the HBR. We think people want to hear how their good deed helped us or made us feel good or improved the quality of our life. After all, that was the point, right?

Wrong. Humans are egocentric. Remember when Joey Tribbiani sort of convinced us that there’s no such thing as a good deed?

Turns out, research backs this up. We do nice things to feel better about ourselves:

Yes, your helper wants you to be happy, but the motivation to be helpful often is tied directly to our own sense of self-worth. We help because we want to be good people, to live up to our goals and values, and, admittedly, to be admired.

So when you thank someone, use “other-praising” phrases that focus more on acknowledging and validating the actions of the giver. Instead of “Thank you, that really made my day easier,” try “Thank you for going out of your way to…” Or rather than “That made me so happy,” use “You’re so good at…”

Think about the giver’s actions and what it says about them, rather than how those actions made you feel. (And then write about how it made you feel in your gratitude journal.)


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