Create Stronger Connections with Gratitude
Connecting with others, especially loved ones, comes with endless benefits, the most important being bringing more meaning to your own life.
These strong and meaningful connections form the basis for emotional well-being – they help you to feel valued, understood and validated. While secure relationships with others enable you to share positive experiences, they also provide a safe space to share your anxieties or what causes you stress.
We are all wired to connect!
Your need and ability to connect has deep evolutionary roots, which is clear in many species of animals. Social connection has evolved as a basic need for human survival. Your brain assumes that regular contact with others is ‘normal’, that is why feelings of loneliness or exclusion are a source of stress and may be felt much like you are in physical pain.
When you create meaningful connections with others it is pleasurable and activates the reward centre of your brain. Think about babies and the need they have to be close to a parent – this is a survival instinct and being close to someone we love makes us feel happy and safe.Face-to-face connection is so much more powerful too. Spending time doing things together, laughing and sharing experiences activates a big nerve that runs through the centre of our bodies. When stimulated it can reduce stress, anxiety, anger, and inflammation. Think of the warm joyful feeling you get when you are feeling love or having fun – it starts in your belly and rushes up through your chest. This is your vagus nerve sending lovely transmittors to your brain.
On the flip side if you are feeling lonely, disconnected or misunderstood you feel the need to run away, or you get sad and angry, and lash out. This doesn’t feel as good, as mentioned it can be felt like physical pain, and it stimulates your stress and anxiety response. By making time to connect with others you can strengthen your vagus nerve and increase your happiness and feelings of belonging.
How do we connect? With Gratitude of course!
When practicing gratitude by thinking of and appreciating someone else you can physically feel the vagus nerve light up. Because it lights up our reward centre and feels good, we are more inclined to want to do it again!
Try it! Close your eyes, breathe deep into your belly and think of a time you were grateful for something someone did for you. Re-imagine how it made you feel. Can you feel a warmth in your chest? Great! By doing this regularly you can strengthen that pathway and increase those feelings of connection and contentment.
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Plus practicing gratitude helps to form and strengthen your social and romantic relationships because it makes you more aware of the people around you, and what they do or give up for you. You become more aware of kind acts and often the result is you feel compelled to reciprocate to them or others. This is true in both personal and professional relationships.
There have been several studies that show that when you have feelings of gratitude for someone it strengthens your relationship and bond with that person, even if you don’t verbally express your gratitude to them. By just taking the time to think about it you may just treat that person with more kindness, they then start to feel appreciated and grateful for the things you do for them, and it feels good for both of you! This creates a loop of positivity and value for each other, thereby you feel closer and have a greater connection.
That doesn’t just mean that you appreciate what that person does for you, but also who they are as a person. If your partner brings in the washing, of course you can be thankful for that small act, but you could also be thankful that your partner saw you were busy and was thoughtful enough to save you the job. These moments of gratitude help you to recognize the value in your partner and you may feel more satisfied in your relationship, have more feelings of commitment and are more forgiving[4,5].
This is also effective in the workplace, where expressing gratitude to colleagues and employees also facilitates improvements in productivity and loyalty, and lessens absenteeism. People feel more connected to their place of work, they feel inspired and uplifted and have increased motivation to do a good job, simply as a result of feeling appreciated and thanked for their hard work.
Think of someone who has done something for you but you have never thanked. It could be a teacher, a friend, parent or coach?
Write them a letter describing what they did for you, how it made you feel and why you are grateful to them. You don’t need to send it for it to make you feel good, but imagine that person reading that letter, or better still – seeing them in person and reading it to them! Showing other people you are grateful to have them in your life will help you to feel more connected to them, and acknowledging what others do for you will help with your feelings of self-worth.
1. Kok B.E., Coffey K.A., Cohn M.A., et al. How positive emotions build physical health: perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone [published correction appears in Psychol Sci. 2016 Jun;27(6):931].
2. Sonja Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness. Piatkus (2010)
3. Algoe, S.B; Haidt, J. & Gable, S.L. (2008) Beyond reciprocity: gratitude and relationships in everyday Life Emotion, 8(3): 425–429.
4. Algoe, S. B., Gable, S. L. and Maisel, N. C. (2010), It’s the little things: Everyday gratitude as a booster shot for romantic relationships. Personal Relationships, 17: 217–233
5. Gordon, A. M., Impett, E. A., Kogan, A., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2012). To have and to hold: Gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(2):257–74
6. Ma, L.,and Tunney, R.J. and Ferguson, E. (2017) Does gratitude enhance prosociality: a meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 143 (6). 601–635.