Why Is It So Hard to Say Thanks?

If you make a list of the most important words in the English language, be sure to include the word "thanks" near the top.

Researchers at several institutions have come up with evidence that simply showing gratitude may be among the most powerful -- and underused -- forces in our lives. It can strengthen relationships, and make us happier and more satisfied with our lives.

That sounds like a high order for what seems like a simple gesture, but there is compelling evidence that expressing gratitude regularly can change a person's life.

And while you might believe that showing thanks is a personality trait and thus difficult to change, some scientists, including psychology professor Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis, believes we can all learn how to do it better.

"It is a [psychological] trait," Emmons said via e-mail, "but unlike something like extraversion-introversion, it is not fixed in one's biological makeup.

"Gratitude is an emotional reaction and a way of looking at the world," he noted. "We have some control over this aspect. Gratitude is a sustainable approach to life that can be freely chosen for oneself. It is choosing to focus on blessings rather than burdens, gifts rather than curses, and people report that it transforms their lives."

Practicing Gratitude Can Transform a Life

But it's not necessarily easy. Someone who is "agreeable, optimistic or empathic" will find it easier than someone who is "disagreeable, pessimistic or narcissistic," Emmons said, but he maintains that six months of "concerted effort and intentional practice" can have a dramatic impact on how one expresses gratitude and how that can transform a life.

Emmons didn't initially choose this course of study. When he was a grad student he applied for a research assistant position with a professor who was studying happiness. So, of course, he had to immerse himself in happiness.

"I was not especially interested in happiness at the time," he said. "I didn't think it was very interesting. Thought it was dumb, actually. Turns out to be the best investment I ever made. My research on happiness led me to focus on gratitude because gratitude was the forgotten factor in happiness research. Just ignored. Neglected. Now we know better."

Keep a Gratitude Journal, Write Down What You Are Thankful For

Emmons plunged headlong into researching gratitude while teaching one of his first classes in health psychology at UC Davis. He assigned some students to write down five things they were thankful for each day. Other students were told to record their complaints.

Three weeks later, the students who kept track of their blessings reported measurable improvements in psychological, physical and social well-being. The complainers were significantly less satisfied with their lives after just three weeks.

Emmons has conducted dozens of similar studies in the years since that first experiment, leading to a book ("Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can make You Happier"), and he has come up with a list of 10 ways to make one more thankful.

At the top of the list is the first assignment he made to his students in 1998: Keep a journal. Write down what you are thankful for, and read it over and over.

It may sound a little hokey, but other scientists have reached similar conclusions.

Study: Happiness Increased With Letters of Gratitude

Steven Toepfer of Kent State University, Salem, had students in six courses write letters of gratitude to people who had positively influenced their lives. Over a six-week period, the students wrote one letter every two weeks.

After each letter, the students completed a survey to gauge their moods, satisfaction with life and feelings of gratitude and happiness.

The result, Toepfer said, was dramatic. The more letters they wrote, the better they felt.

"We are all walking around with an amazing resource: gratitude," Toepfer said in releasing his study. "It helps us express and enjoy, appreciate, and be thankful and satisfied with a little effort. We all have it, and we need to use it to improve our quality of life."

Sara Algoe of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studied 65 couples and found that expressing gratitude was immensely important in maintaining a committed relationship, but the expression had to be genuine. If it seemed more like revealing indebtedness, it didn't work.

Men Are Less Likely Than Women to Express Gratitude

And psychologist Todd Kashdan of George Mason University found that gratitude -- "the emotion of thankfulness and joy in response to receiving a gift" -- is an essential ingredient for living a good life. But his study, published in the Journal of Personality last year, found a gender difference.

Men, he concluded, are much less likely than women to express gratitude. It's not clear why, but some research suggests that men are more likely to think expressing gratitude invokes indebtedness.

Kashan, who also has a book, "Curious," came up with three essentials for happiness: meaningful relationships, gratitude, and living in the present moment with an attitude of openness and curiosity.

But why, you may ask, would simply saying thanks in a genuine way have such a profound effect? Emmons, of UC Davis, offers these reasons:

"Studies are showing that it is not only feeling gratitude but expressing it in the context of relationships that makes it matter. When we express an emotion, it tends to magnify or amplify the feeling. So expressing thanks makes our gratitude stronger."

Gratitude Strengthens Relationships

It also strengthens our relationships, he said, "so not only do we get the internal, personal benefits but also the external relational elements that are less likely to happen if the gratitude stays silent."

"It is good for the giver, and good for the receiver," Emmons said. "This has been documented in friendships, romantic partners and spouses. One study showed that the mere expression of thanks more than doubled the likelihood that helpers would provide assistance again."

So with all that going for it, why do we sometimes find gratitude so difficult to express?

Maybe it's because we're just never quite satisfied with what we have.

As the longshoreman-turned-philosopher Eric Hoffer said years ago, "The hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings."

If you made it this far in this column, thanks a million.