My university, The Open University, has recently started a ‘thank you’ campaign (#OU_thanks) where students and alumni have been encouraged to express their thanks to people who’ve helped them along their journeys of studying at the OU. I was interviewed about this for an article that appeared in The Metro yesterday.
The OU has always had a major commitment to opening up access to higher education beyond those who have conventionally engaged in it. They put on flexible courses so that people can study alongside working full-time, they encourage lifelong learning, and online courses mean that people can study from home, while travelling, or from prison.
This recent thank you campaign recognises that for every OU student there is generally an unacknowledged cluster of other people who have encouraged and helped them to study in this way. There are supportive friends and family members, people who’ve assisted financially with fees, flexible employers, and the OU tutors and peers who’ve helped them through the process. With this campaign, students are taking the opportunity to express their thanks to all these people who’ve helped them to do something which they are often extremely proud of, and which opens up their possibilities in all kinds of important ways.
Interestingly, at the same time as the campaign was happening, a bunch of OU psychologists were putting together a new psychology module called ‘Living psychology: From the Everyday to the Extraordinary’. I’ve been writing two chapters for this module that have a bearing on gratitude: one on self-help and happiness, and one tackling relationship conflict. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to reflect on what we know about the psychology of gratitude, as well as giving some of my own thoughts on the matter.
Gratitude for mental health and well-being?
We probably assume that gratitude will be a positive thing for the person being thanked, but recent research in ‘positive psychology’ has found that it also has a very positive impact on the person doing the thanking.
The pioneer of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, studied all kinds of techniques for making people happier. The three he found to be the most effective were: remembering three positive experiences at the end of every day, finding a main strength that you have and applying it in a different arena, and writing a letter of gratitude to somebody and delivering it personally.
We might also consider the fact that most common mental health problems include a major component of criticism. In depression people frequently struggle with self-critical thoughts, in anxiety fear of failure is often bound up with self-criticism, and self-criticism often also has a key role in body image issues, self-harm, psychotic experiences, and addictions. For this reason, therapies and practices involving kindness and compassion have become increasingly popular in recent years. The tendency to evaluate, judge and criticise ourselves harshly is often related to a similar approach to other people. Therefore expressing gratitude and appreciation might be a useful counter to this tendency. Perhaps we can cultivate self-compassion to counter self-criticism, and appreciation to counter our criticism of others?
Finally, Open University research on relationships – the ‘Enduring Love?’ project – has found that ‘saying thank you’ was the most highly valued way in which people in couples showed their appreciation for each other. It is common, in long term relationships like those studied, for people to start to take each other for granted. Also it is very easy for people who live alongside each other for long periods of time, and who have high expectations of love relationships, to become judgemental of each other in ways that they probably wouldn’t be of other people in their lives, leading to conflict.
The act of saying thank you for small –and big –things that we do for each other, is a good way to demonstrate that you still appreciate somebody rather than assuming that helping you is their duty or obligation, for example. It is also a good counter to the kinds of criticisms that happen in conflict situations. Researchers at the Gottman institute found that unhappy couples engaged in a great deal of criticism, whereas happy couples had five times as many positive interactions to negative ones, and expressions of gratitude and appreciation are a good example of such ‘positive interactions’.
Individual or social?
However, there are some limitations to this approach to gratitude which focuses on the potential impact on individual mental health and well-being, or on satisfaction in individual couple relationships.
As I’ve discussed elsewhere, the criticism that so many of us struggle with is not just an individual thing that we happen to do (because of faulty brains, for example). Rather we are embedded in a culture which encourages high levels of criticism and comparison. Products are advertised on the basis that we are lacking and need to improve ourselves in some way, or that having such things could make us better than other people. Make-over TV shows, the red-rings round ‘problem’ body parts in women’s magazines, and self-help books also often encourage ourselves to compare ourselves to others, to self-monitor, and to criticise ourselves and other people.
From this perspective, expressing gratitude towards other individual people would be a starting point for a wider project of countering this culture of criticism, rather than an end-point that is reached once it has resulted in improved individual happiness or decreased relationship conflict.
With a more cultural understanding we might try not to stop with gratitude visits to those close friends and inspirational teachers who have helped with our individual journeys. We might expand out to also consider the strangers who have a positive impact on us every day: the people whose work keeps our streets clean, for example, or all the many people whose collective work goes into our morning cup of coffee.
Such an approach might lead us to more social considerations of how to ensure that all people are valued – particularly those whose contribution is often undervalued in the current national and international situation. This points us towards a recognition of our interconnectedness and interdependence. It may not stop with human beings but rather it could enable us also to appreciate the other species who enable us to live the lives of comfort that we currently enjoy.
Thus expressions of gratitude in such situations may come with a call for further action. They might also help us to be more present to our lives: to appreciate things as they occur instead of only in reflection afterwards. In this way such gratitude is a component of engaging more mindfully with the world.
Gratitude or appreciation?
Another more social issue here is around the power dynamics of thanking people. I once offered a workshop at a community event to encourage people to express gratitude to those who’d helped them in their lives. A disability activist pointed out to me that ‘gratitude’ wasn’t a great word as it implies a power imbalance between the people involved. She said that disabled people are often expected to express gratitude and seldom expected to be the people who others are grateful to. For these reasons we re-titled the workshop ‘appreciation’ rather than ‘gratitude’.
I thought that this might be a useful reframing for other situations as well. For example, when it comes to mental health issues the focus could easily be on those who have struggled to thank those who helped them, but it is often so much more complicated than that. We get a lot from being the ‘helper’ as well as the ‘helped’, and situations of gratitude can set up an unrealistic ‘us and them’ distinction between mentally healthy and unhealthy. It is important to demonstrate that all people are valued and appreciated, and that can be particularly powerful in the case of those who are rarely thanked.
Bringing this back to the Open University campaign we explored the possibility of all OU people expressing their appreciation, not just the students. For example, as a lecturer I am so often struck by how much I have learnt from students: at least as much, over the years, as they have learnt from me, I am certain. A similar thing is true for the clients I have seen as a therapist. It is hard to put into words what a huge deal it is to have somebody open up their vulnerability to another person like that, and how much I have learnt – personally and professionally – from their courage. I like the idea of appreciation as a mutual endeavour rather than a one way street across the power dynamic.
Doing appreciation: Why, what, when, where and how
To end on a practical note I want to consider some of the pragmatics involved in ensuring that a thank you is ethical and consensual.
Encouragement to make grand gestures of thanks can, ironically, miss the other person entirely and become all about us, the thanker. So we need to think about the why, what, when, where and how of appreciation.
First we need to consider why we’re doing it. Personally I don’t believe that improving our own happiness is a great motivation for saying thank you! Similarly it is easy to say thank you because we feel it is expected of us, because it’s just what people do in the situation we’re in, or because we hope to get something in return (their thanks, or sense of obligation to us, for example). So we might reflect on whether we are genuinely appreciative of somebody and what they have done, as well as whether our thank you is freely given rather than in expectation of a certain response.
Secondly it’s worth considering the what, where and when of appreciation. There are many different ways of expressing appreciation and thanks. Do we make a grand gesture or just a simple message? Should we provide a detailed explanation of the impact somebody has had on us, or just say that we appreciate them and leave it at that? Is it important to meet in person or can it be better communicated over phone, email or message? Should it include some kind of gift or not?
This all relates to the question of how our appreciation will be received. We need to consider what we know about the person. For some people a public declaration would mean the world, for others it would be excruciatingly embarrassing. Receiving a thank you letter might be so moving that a person would want to be alone, and with enough time to process it, rather than feeling that an immediate reaction was required. If the person we’re expressing appreciation for is somebody we have drifted away from, or had problems with, they might resent our intrusion into their lives.
There are similar issues, of course, with other kinds of declaration such as the ‘making amends’ encouraged by twelve step addiction programmes, or expressing our congratulations to somebody when we don’t really know whether the thing that’s happened (birthday, promotion, pregnancy) is really a cause for celebration for them.
A couple of recent examples spring to mind for me. I’ve read several books lately where the writer has thanked their partner in the acknowledgements section to the point of saying that the book would never have been written without them, and that they actually did much of the work of writing or researching it. Sometimes I wonder whether that public thank you might feel somewhat undermining to someone who – from the sound of it – might more appropriately have been listed as a co-author.
On the other hand, I recently experienced something that meant a great deal to me: somebody thanking me for my writing which had connected with them. The respectful way in which they did that, acknowledging the potential overwhelmingness of the situation for me, and allowing me time to take it in, was really appreciated.
In closing I’d like express my own appreciation to the OU campaign people for getting me thinking so much about this topic and to you for staying with me to the end of another long blog post: Thank you!
If you like, you can read the pdf of the original article here: MetroThankYou