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One simple way to be happier on your phone
New study sheds light on the complicated business of gratitude in the digital age
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Summary for busy sapiens
Gratitude means recognizing that a good thing happened to us, and someone or something else played a role in it
We might have complicated feelings about gratitude, but practicing it can make us happier
A recent study suggests that thanking someone privately (via text) or publicly (via social media) can both increase positive emotions
Thanking someone via text message can also boost feelings of social connection and support
6 minute read
There was a brief period of time in my life when I kept a gratitude journal. I had just finished graduate school and returned home from a three-week trip, hiking snow-capped mountains in Wyoming and Colorado and windswept canyons in New Mexico and Arizona. Brimming with an optimism that only hundreds of hours in nature and a completed dissertation can provide, I was ready to say thank you to the universe.
And for a while, I did. As I moved cities and started a new job, I’d dutifully grab my notebook each evening and write down three things I was thankful for. Sometimes they were big things—my family, my career, my health. Other times they were small—sun coming through my window; the surge of caffeine in a White Electriciced coffee; those adorable, tiny jars of strawberry jelly that they give you at hotel breakfasts.
Then, life happened. I got busy. I started missing a day here or there, telling myself I was too tired or would do it the next morning instead (I never did). The journal sat on the nightstand next to my bed, slowly getting buried under a growing pile of books about therapeutic techniques, notebooks scrawled with grant ideas, train tickets to visit my long-distance partner, and empty coffee cups. So many coffee cups. Gradually, the journal began not to spark feelings of gratitude and optimism, but feelings of guilt and frustration.
I should be more grateful, I kept telling myself. I should be making time to write this. Yes, I’m busy, I’m stressed, but shouldn’t I be grateful for the things making me busy and stressed? Digging through the pile of work-life remnants and filling out the journal became an insurmountable task. Another so-called self-care strategy turned from caring to burdensome.
How did the gratitude journal get so complicated?
Gratitude is good, but complicated
I know I’m not alone in my complicated feelings about gratitude. It’s a word we hear often: a favorite trope of self-help gurus, a virtue we’ve been taught to uphold, a social media hashtag (#grateful).
The research would make gratitude seem straightforward.
There’s a clear definition: an emotion that “results from a two-step cognitive process: (a) recognizing that one has obtained a positive outcome, and (b) recognizing that there is an external source for this positive outcome.” In other words, recognizing a good thing that has happened to us, and that someone or something else (fate, luck, the weather) played a role in it.
There’s also the science to back it up: according to a recent meta-analysis of 347 positive psychology interventions with over 72,000 participants, gratitude interventions (like writing gratitude journals or letters to others) are effective for increasing well-being, positive emotions, and happiness.
We know gratitude can make us happier, but in the real world, it doesn’t always seem so easy.
At the mere mention of the word “gratitude,” some of us can’t help rolling our eyes, waiting for the next self-care enthusiast to remind us how it will change our lives.
Some of us brace for a lecture, remembering times gratitude has been weaponized to shame us (Why can’t you just be grateful for what you have?) or trivialize our difficulties (Other people have it worse than you!) We may feel a sneaking sense of guilt, believing we should be thankful for what we have and, by extension, stop feeling sad or angry or tired or all kinds of other extremely normal, human feelings.
And in a world of phones and social media, some of us may be cynical. Some of us may remember a recent photo of an acquaintance’s partner, in excellent lighting, surrounded by smiling children, relaxing in a pumpkin patch somewhere, with a caption detailing how #grateful everyone feels. And we might wonder: is this really necessary? (No? Just me?)
A new study to renew our faith in gratitude
With all the eye-rolling, and guilt, and cynicism that has come to complicate the idea of gratitude, I was relieved (grateful, even?) to come across this study, published a few weeks ago in the journal Affective Science. It reminds us that gratitude doesn’t need to be so complicated, so fraught, so burdensome.
In fact, gratitude can be extremely simple. And it can start in the simplest of places: our phones.
The goal of the study is nicely summed up in the title: What is the optimal way to give thanks? Comparing the effects of gratitude expressed privately, one-to-one via text, or publicly on social media.
Researchers took a sample of 916 college students and randomly assigned them to one of four conditions:
Private Gratitude. Participants were asked to use their smartphones or laptop to type a gratitude letter “to someone who has done something for which you are extremely grateful.” They were told not to share the letter with anyone, even the person they were thanking.
One-to-One Gratitude. Participants were asked to use their phones to text someone one-on-one to thank them for something they had done.
Public Gratitude. Participants were asked to use social media to publicly (i.e., not in a private message) thank someone for something they had done.
Control Group. Participants were asked to simply keep a log of their daily activities by typing it on their computer or smartphone.
Participants were asked to do the activity of their assigned condition three times over the course of approximately one week, thanking a different person each time.
And what did the study find?
Compared to the control group, participants in all the gratitude conditions showed significant increases in a range of positive outcomes, including: gratitude (duh), positive emotions (happy, peaceful), life satisfaction, and feelings of social connectedness and support. They also showed decreases in loneliness.
How about differences between the gratitude groups? Was texting one-on-one better than posting on social media or writing privately? For two outcomes, yes. The one-to-one texting group showed greater increases in feelings of social connectedness (i.e., a sense of intimacy or relatedness with the people you spend time with) and social support (i.e., a sense that you can depend on the people around you for help, encouragement, and support).
The takeaway: It turns out, we can use our phones to practice gratitude and feel a little bit better. Whether we send a text to someone thanking them, do it publicly on social media, or even just type out a few notes on why we’re grateful for them, it can make a difference. If we want to cultivate feelings of social connection and support—and perhaps, if we want the other person to feel the same—sending a textis the way to go.
Let’s get out there and thank some people
Gratitude is complicated for many of us, whether it’s a reminder of an abandoned gratitude journal, a prompt for guilt or frustration, or a source of cynicism over a carefully crafted social media post.
But it doesn’t need to be complicated.
This week, I’m planning to send a text to say thank you to someone in my life. I hope you’ll think about joining me.
And I might even start looking for that gratitude journal.
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For the uninitiated, White Electric is a coffee shop in Providence whose iced coffee is at least 50% responsible for my current grant funding. I do not know what they put in this coffee, but it has single-handedly fueled hundreds of pages of grant applications in the past few years—not to mention, a few highly over-caffeinated runs along Blackstone Boulevard. Highly recommend.
Other meta-analyses of gratitude interventions, like this one and this one, note that these interventions tend to have small effect sizes and are likely not effective for reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety. They also criticize commonly-used control groups in these studies, which ask participants to write out lists of “daily hassles,” or stressors—thus inflating the seemingly positive effects of the gratitude journaling groups. And you know what? I don’t need that kind of negativity in my life. [I’m kidding. Rigorous science is obviously important.] My current takeaway is this: gratitude interventions likely have small, but meaningful, effects on increasing positive emotions and life satisfaction, but they should not be used as a standalone treatment for depression or anxiety. For those interested, this 2018 summary by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley offers a nice, accessible overview of the research on gratitude.
Worth noting here that a significant number of my (non-Techno Sapiens-related) social media posts begin with words like “Huge thank you to…,” or “So grateful for…”, or, even worse, “Excited to share…” (i.e., the coward’s #gratitude). None of us are immune.
Here’s the full citation: Walsh, L.C., Regan, A., Twenge, J.M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2022). What is the Optimal Way to Give Thanks? Comparing the Effects of Gratitude Expressed Privately, One-to-One via Text, or Publicly on Social Media. Affective Science.
Interestingly, the study had people think of a different person to thank each time, rather than thanking the same person repeatedly. They did this to keep the task novel and varied, and to minimize something called “hedonic adaptation,” or our tendency to enjoy things less as we get used to them over time. For example: when my son got his first pair of tiny sneakers, I loved them. I was delighted each time I saw them amidst the seemingly enormous adult-sized shoes piled in our entryway. Now, I am used to them, and, rather than feeling delight, I find myself wondering why they are filled with sand, or, say, resting atop a single, used sock.
I imagine sending a one-on-one email would function similarly to a text, although (not surprisingly) I don’t have data on this.