Have you ever noticed that glow on someone who is grateful for all sorts of little things?
They not only remember to say thank you for the smallest of kindnesses, they infuse everyday life with warmth and genuine appreciation. We all want to be around these people because even when things are tough, they usually make light work by smiling and saying something nice.
Do you also notice that these people are often in happy relationships? It’s not an accident. Their practice of gratitude extends to their spouse and their home life.
No relationship is perfect, but couples that recognize what’s good in each other, and are thankful for each other, also stand up better to the bumps and bruises of life that others feel deeply.
It’s an upward cycle that begins with a single instance of appreciation. Here’s how gratitude plays out in a relationship:
Before you feel gratitude, you first must look for something to feel grateful for!
Dr. Rick Hanson (Greater Good Science Center, Berkeley) reminds people to savor positive experiences, “really let them in.” Especially where your spouse is concerned, if you want a closer bond, as you are enjoying something your partner does or says, force yourself to stop and let it resonate in your being for a short time.
Don’t let the moment slip by. Consciously allow the compliment to hit home, or really see your partner when he or she does or says something nice. Count to 5 and let it wash over you. Consider how you might respond in kind, or put a mental bookmark on it to mention later to your spouse, or even to a friend in his or her company. Little things like that really show your gratitude and appreciation, and ensure that the small kindnesses keep flowing.
Then, notice how gratitude enhances your feeling of appreciation and commitment. Instead of assuming that it’s your partner’s job to take out the trash, for example, train your mind to be grateful that your spouse takes out the trash at all. Then tell him or her. Stop taking the little things for granted. (Some spouses either can’t or won’t do a little thing like that. We’ve all seen it.) Instead, commit to letting the other know that you recognize the act of service and appreciate it.
Even things that get under your skin can be positioned in such a way that you begin to see them in a new light and even value them. A unique quality might be worthy of your praise instead of annoyance. I knew a woman who was irritated that her husband was a big tipper. She always felt that 25% was way too much to leave the waiter, or the hairdresser. Yet, one day she was witnessed an acquaintance whose husband never paid for anything extra. He was so cheap that it embarrassed this woman time and again.
Suddenly her extra generous husband didn’t seem so bad. When faced with the opposite trait, she suddenly realized she preferred her husband’s generosity to another’s overly poor (nonexistent) tipping habit. She began to appreciate her husband’s giving personality, and instead of focusing on her perception of him as a spendthrift, she made the commitment to stop subtly trying to change him.
Next, gratitude makes you want to do nice things for your partner and listen more intently. In lab studies, couples that recognize and are grateful for their spouses also pay more attention to what their partner says. They reciprocate kindnesses more freely, and often go out of their way to do something nice in return.
OK, the byproduct of doing nice things for your partner should be pretty obvious! He or she feels more appreciated! And that’s where things really start to snowball. Appreciation leads to gratitude, and so the cycle escalates – this time in both partners’ directions. I’m picturing the double helix — remember that DNA visual? That’s what your gratitude could look like!
So what’s another outcome of gratitude in a relationship? When you put your intention toward it, and you begin to look for ways to feel grateful, you start making social connections where there were none before. Yes, at first it may feel a little contrived, especially if you’re naturally a glass-half-empty kind of person. Let’s just admit it that you’re using a new muscle and move ahead.
Now go back to the woman with the husband who “over”-tips the waiter. If she tells herself, “I’m grateful that I have a man who values people and rewards them for their work,” then you automatically allow yourself to become part of a larger social connection with a stranger in the world. You feel warmth toward the waiter as you appreciate your husband because your eyes are opened to the happiness your husband brings him.
Your heart opens to more happiness “at large” when you feel gratitude for the little things in life. See how that works? Gratitude therefore increases social connection and happiness. You find yourself humbled by all the goodness surrounding you when you lower your sights a little, and the world smiles back at you. You become someone people want to be around.
Finally, consciously practicing gratitude allows us to filter out the hassles in life and the negative stuff associated with them. While you’re busy feeling grateful, you can’t also be worrying, stressed out out, or angry about something else. It’s really difficult to feel both positive and negative at the same time. So open the valve of mixed emotions and let all the negative stuff pour out. Hold onto the good part like it’s gold, as if you’re sifting through sand for treasure! If your mindset is to perceive these little nuggets of goodness as the treasure they are, you’ll find you keep them near and dear, amplifying their effects in your mind and heart.
Once you stop being a Negative Nellie, the positive gifts begin to flow and your gratitude snowball gains momentum. You’re right back at the top of the cycle again, looking for something to feel grateful for… and it gets easier every day!