Of course, when you love someone, that’s the foundation for a happy relationship, however, science is finding that just love may not be enough.
A recent study from Greater Good Science Center Gratitude Research Fellow Sara Algoe and colleague Baldwin Way, in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, suggests the answer may be in two simple words…
It’s been known for centuries that being grateful is a powerful way to foster healthy relationships.
“When you practice gratefulness, there is a sense of respect towards others.” –Dalai Lama
In accordance with ancient Buddhist philosophy, 13th-century Buddhist monk Nichiren could state that he felt the deepest gratitude towards the government official who persecuted him and attempted to have him killed. It was precisely because of of that experience that Nichiren said he was able to test and prove the power of his convictions, finding profound strength and sense of purpose from within.
Nichiren’s letters during the Kamakura period in Japan to his followers almost always opened with a heartfelt expression of thanking them for their offerings and support.
But science is just beginning to understand that there there’s a biological mechanism behind those sacred words… “thank you.”
Oxytocin is a neuropeptide, popularly known for its feel good effect that’s involved in all kinds of human social interactions, from parenting and when a mother breastfeeds her newborn, to meeting and hugging a friend, but its been known that its baseline in the body is around zero and it needs a stimulus to cause its release.
Sara Algoe’s study took 77 couples who were all heterosexual and monogamous to visit their lab twice, two weeks apart. They would complete brief nightly questionnaires for each of the 14 nights between visits. At the beginning of the study, they were also asked to fill out a questionnaire on how satisfied they felt in their current relationship.
Once in the lab, they were asked to choose something specific, could be anything, that their partner did for him or her and for which he or she felt thankful. After he or she said thank you, both partners would privately rate their feelings. While they filled out these self-reports, four unbiased judges submitted their own ratings on what they’d observed of these couples’ expressions of gratitude. Once the first round completed recording, the partners would swap roles and repeat.
The researchers also took a saliva sample, looking for the CD38 gene, a key regulator of oxytocin release. They found that CD38 is actually significantly associated with a number of positive psychological and behavioral outcomes that are all intimately related to the expression of gratitude.
It meant that participants reported that they felt more loving, more peaceful and overall good inside. They perceived their partner as being more understanding, validating, caring, and more responsive. They were more likely to have reported spontaneously thanking their partner for something they’d appreciated on any given day. And they were more satisfied with the quality of their relationship in the midst of gratitude.
The authors then wanted to know if there was something specific about our oxytocin system that furthered social bonds….so the research went on.
This time, they didn’t ask participants to say thank you. Instead, they asked for them to share a personal and positive event. Just like in the first study, participants felt joy and were enthusiastic. But, unlike in the first one, there was no pattern that emerged at a genetic level. The presence of CD38 in this study could not systematically predict the presence of the positive feelings.
So oxytocin isn’t just selective toward joy or “feeling darn good.”
It’s really selective towards gratitude, maybe to the extent of sharing gratitude, like when a husband tells his wife that his happiness is due to her role in his life, and actually recognizes our interdependence.
Algoe and Way say that our oxytocin system is associated with “solidifying the glue that binds adults into meaningful and important relationships.”
And even though we all have read countless information on the concept of humans beings as social creatures, this study is remarkable in that it suggests more, eluding to what the ancients could feel…that our emotional response of sharing kind words or actions is deeply rooted within us, at the core of our evolutionary historical body.