If you’re looking to create a warm and welcoming season of cheer, show those around you genuine expressions of gratitude, even if it’s not specifically to them. Doing so can go a long way to creating stronger bonds within the whole group, according to research from Darden Professor Ayana Younge.

“Gratitude may help strengthen multiple relationships within a social network directly and simultaneously,” Younge and co-authors Sara B. Algoe, Patrick C. Dwyer and Christopher Oveis write in “A New Perspective on the Social Functions of Emotions: Gratitude and the Witnessing Effect,” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In eight experiments, Younge and her colleagues demonstrated that gratitude benefits not only the person who expresses gratitude and the person who receives the thanks, but also those who witness the interaction. They found that people who saw an expression of gratitude between two others were more likely to act warmly and generously toward both parties: the person who expressed the gratitude and the person who received it.

“In a time in which people feel social bonds have become frayed by economic, political and other social pressures, this research shows just how much social currency gratitude carries,” Younge says.

Inspiring More Effort — But With Minimal Effort

Gratitude doesn’t need to be flowery or overly demonstrative to be powerful. In their first three experiments, the research team conveyed gratitude via a simple comment bubble on a document with tracked changes. “Thank you so much for catching these typos!” the note read.

After seeing documents with gratitude expressions from one worker to another, the study participants were more likely to take the extra step and proactively correct typos, too, though the task they were asked to do was to simply underline and bold useful sections of a movie review — not to make corrections, which represented “above and beyond” effort.

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As organizations look for ways to engage workers and spur them to make discretionary effort, showing gratitude seems to create high payoff with minimal effort.

A Bid for Intimacy

Gratitude also fast-tracks trust and affiliation, giving one the desire to connect with the grateful person.

In another of the researchers’ experiments, subjects watched videos and then were asked to write to the person in the video, expressing a positive personal experience of their own. Study participants who witnessed gratitude in the video shared more personal and emotional messages with the original speaker than those who watched videos in which the speaker spoke calmly but did not explicitly express thanks. Younge and co-authors interpreted such writings as “a bid for intimacy” that would set the stage for friendship and goodwill.

“This speaks to the power of gratitude in interpersonal dynamics — a simple thank you is a stronger facilitator of relationship-building behaviors than general positivity,” Younge notes. Citing earlier research by her mentor, UNC Chapel Hill Professor Sara Algoe, Younge also emphasizes that “the ‘active ingredient’ in gratitude is the other-praising language.”

Social and Professional Connection

This work suggests new possibilities for gratitude as a positive force within group dynamics, both socially and professionally. This holiday season, Younge suggests expressing gratitude publicly (and sincerely!) to a new or less-well-connected guest or colleague. Don’t wait until the end of the event, either; thank the individual early on for anything they helped with, brought, went out of their way to do — or simply for attending.

“If we want to increase positive perceptions of someone who is ‘new to the crew,’ expressing gratitude to them will allow others to form good first impression of that person and perceive them as people they, too, might want to develop a strong relationship with,” Younge says.

Cheer Beyond the Season

Take the lesson beyond the season that may inspire positivity and reflection: Express gratitude to new members of a workplace team to help them build credibility within the group. Thank a co-worker or vendor for doing stellar work, and do so in front of others who will need to collaborate with them in future.

“Amid the chaos we face, both in our daily grind and in our society, we all need someone to enrich our lives,” Younge reflects. “We need that high-quality partner — a friend, a colleague, a romantic partner, a family member — to settle us, support us, de-stress us. Even when we travel through darkness, gratitude can be a vehicle to get us to our destination because it brings our positive relationships to light.”

Ayana Younge co-authored “A New Perspective on the Social Functions of Emotions: Gratitude and the Witnessing Effect,” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, with Sara B. Algoe of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Patrick C. Dwyer of Indiana University and Purdue University; and Christopher Oveis of the University of California, San Diego.

About the Expert

Ayana Younge

Assistant Professor of Business Administration

A professor in the Leadership and Organizational Behavior academic area, Ayana Younge’s research lies at the intersection of emotions, social hierarchy and interpersonal processes. She studies the cultivation of positive relationships at work, exploring how favorable emotions influence relational perceptions and behaviors within organizations, as well as how social hierarchical context may play a role in shaping emotion perception. Her work on gratitude has been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Younge served as the 2019–20 president of the Management Doctoral Student Association and is a member of the PhD Project and the Management Faculty of Color Association.

B.A., M.S., California State University, Los Angeles; M.S., Ph.D., University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill