Christian Jarrett, writing in the Research Digest of the British Psychological Society, summarizes a series of experiments in Psychological Science conducted by Amit Kumar at the University of Texas at Austin and Nicholas Epley at Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago. Kumar and Epley found that “expressing gratitude might not buy everything, but it may buy more than people seem to expect”.
According to Kumar and Epley, a common failure of perspective means that a lot of us underestimate the positive impact on others (and ourselves) of expressing gratitude, meaning that we miss out on a simple way to improve our social relations and wellbeing.
In the experiment, the senders of the thank-you letters consistently underestimated how positive the recipients felt about receiving the letters and how surprised they were by the content. The senders also overestimated how awkward the recipients felt; and they underestimated how warm, and especially how competent, the recipients perceived them to be.
The researchers believe that this asymmetry between the perspective of the potential expresser of gratitude and the recipient means that we often refrain from this simple but “powerful act of civility” that would benefit both parties.
I remember a few years ago I set a New Year’s resolution to send a thank you note a day. It lasted all of one day. I sent a note of gratitude to my college swim coach, letting him know what a positive impact he had on my life. It took a while to get the words just right, and I realized I could not write such a note every day.
So I decided to make it once a week, and the following week I wrote to my first boss at Villanova, thanking him for hiring me and being such a positive role model.
My coach and boss both contacted me shortly after receiving my letter, each of them saying how moved they were from receiving my letter. But I also detected some concern in their voices, and I had a sense they thought I was giving my final good-byes.Such a thought never entered my mind, but in hindsight I can see how receiving such a letter out of the blue could raise some questions as to why such a letter was sent. I assured them that everything was OK, and we proceeded to have a nice conversation.
Those were the only two thank you notes I wrote as part of my New Year’s resolution. I’m not really sure why I stopped, but after reading this article, I feel motivated to write some more gratitude letters.
I’ve also been on the other end of such letters – getting the occasional thank you email or card from a student. I can vouch for how good such a note feels.
So I hope I’m more diligent this time around in expressing my gratitude, knowing that doing so will likely have a positive impact on both the receiver, and the sender.