The Power of Casual Gratitude

June 28, 2016

There are many things I envy about Tami Taylor, the famously empathetic yet take-no-shit matriarch of Friday Night Lights: her perfect hair, her prodigious wine intake, her ability to always say the right thing. But while watching the show, one thing that really grabbed me was her capacity for casual gratitude.

Casual gratitude is a term I just made up, to distinguish it from the more serious, mindful, let-me-sit-down-and-count-my-blessings practice of gratitude, or the formal gratitude of, say, a thank you note, or a life debt. As the Taylors flurried around their Texas kitchen and the local high school, Tami was always quick to recognize others for the small favors they did for her with a “thank you” or “I appreciate it.” And it’s how she says it. She doesn’t make a big deal out of it, just thanks people casually, but with grace and sincerity, and then she moves on. A simple thank you for a simple kindness.

This is hard to do! It requires that you pay attention to what other people do, and not get sucked into taking simple kindnesses for granted—or, worse, apologizing.

This year, my best friend Cortney told me her New Year’s resolution was to stop saying “sorry” when she meant to say “thank you.” She got this from a great web comic by Yao Xiao, which shows the contrast between things like “Thanks for listening” and “Sorry I’m rambling,” or between “Thanks for waiting,” and “Sorry I’m late.” Watching Tami Taylor’s casual gratitude reminded me of this, and I’ve started noticing when I and others opt for “sorry” or “thanks” and thinking about what it means.

It’s well-known at this point that gratitude can increase your happiness and well-being. There’s a lot of research that focuses on mindful or formal gratitude, with participants doing deliberate writing activities that boost their mood. Studies also show the pro-social effects of gratitude; married couples who thank each other more often have happier marriages, and thanking friends or acquaintances makes them see you as a warmer person.

One study, from 1967, looks specifically at substituting “thank you” for “sorry.” The researcher surveyed college students about how they would feel if someone was late for a lunch date or stole a seat from them on the bus if they apologized, thanked them, or said nothing. In the lunch date condition, the prompt said you were pretty sure the lunch was at noon, but the person arrives at 12:30. So it’s more ambiguous whether they were late or not, since you could have been mistaken about the time.

When the offense was unambiguous—the seat-stealing condition—participants preferred an apology to a thank-you. But in the lunch-date condition, when the offense was more ambiguous, a thank-you was just as effective at reducing participants’ irritation. The researchers also speculated that thanking might be more effective over time, because if you keep apologizing for the same offense over and over, well, you stop seeming sorry.

It’s a reflex to try to relieve the itchy feeling of being in someone else’s debt.

This makes sense; if you’ve truly done something to hurt or offend someone, an apology is best. But so often the things people apologize for in daily life are ambiguous. A “sorry” is a token offered to ward off guilt and to keep others from being irritated with you. But it’s just basic economics that the more of these coins you have in circulation, the less they’re worth.

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