Getting by (Better) With a Little Help From Our Friends
Stress is something that most people have to deal with at some point in their lives. In fact, a Gallup Poll from December of 2017 revealed that 8 out of 10 Americans reported sometimes or frequently experiencing stress in their daily lives—and that was before the pandemic! Whether it is a significant life event such as the death of a loved one, losing your job, getting divorced, or more minor daily hassles such as getting stuck in traffic or constantly cleaning up after your children, these stressful situations arise in our lives and can create significant problems for psychological and physical health.
The good news is that there are things that can reduce these negative consequences of stressful life events. One of these things is getting help from family, friends, and even strangers. Support from others typically results in better mental and physical health outcomes. Individuals who have more social support in their lives experience less depression and anxiety, more life satisfaction, and fewer physical health ailments.
Not having support, however, can result in feelings of social isolation and loneliness. In fact, a study appearing over 25 years ago found that not having adequate amounts of social support carried greater health risks than cigarette smoking. These results have since been replicated by researchers at Brigham Young University in 2010!
Although social support is usually beneficial, there are some situations where it is perceived as less helpful. For example, sometimes people think they are being helpful, but their support misses the mark and is not perceived positively by the recipient (like when your friend tells you to “look on the bright side” after losing a beloved pet). Other times, receiving support may cause us to feel obligated to repay the person who helped us. This too can be negative.
Importantly, many of these factors that decrease the effectiveness of support are mitigated by feelings of gratitude. For example, more grateful people tend to report greater relationship satisfaction and a willingness to be indebted to others. Therefore, it is possible that gratitude shuts down some of these negative factors that inhibit support’s effectiveness, thereby making it more likely that support will have its intended effect of promoting better well-being.
We designed an experiment to test this. In our study, 100 undergraduate students either wrote for five minutes about someone they were grateful for or about something neutral (the route they took to the experiment). Students then engaged in a stressful task—to prepare and give a brief speech supporting or opposing euthanasia.
Critically, during the speech, trained research assistants provided support to some participants but not to others. This support included gestures such as nodding and making supportive statements (“Good point!”) throughout the speech. For those participants who did not receive support, research assistants sat attentively but otherwise did not interact.
Once participants completed their speech, they were asked how stressful they found the task and how supportive they found the research assistant. As expected, compared to participants who did not receive support, participants who did reported that the speech task was less stressful and rated the research assistant as more supportive.
Thus, individuals who received support after writing about someone for whom they were grateful reported much lower stress than those who wrote about someone they were grateful for but did not receive support. When we are grateful, social support is even more beneficial than usual.
Why Does Gratitude Boost the Effect of Social Support?
We suggest three possible explanations. Gratitude may alter our view of the support we receive, so that we see supportive gestures as more altruistic. Or, we may see the person offering the support as being more genuine and caring. Finally, gratitude may help us be more willing to accept support from others. Taken together, all of these things help to increase the effectiveness of the support provided.
Cultivating gratitude is something that everyone can do. Starting or ending your day by taking just a few moments to reflect on the people you are grateful for, writing a letter of gratitude, or appreciating the little things are all ways to cultivate it. Having more gratitude in your own life may, in turn, make the support you receive from others more beneficial in reducing stress and improving your own psychological and physical health. You might get by even better with a little help from your friends.
For Further Reading
Deichert, N. T., Fekete, E. M., & Craven, M. (2021). Gratitude enhances the beneficial effects of social support on psychological well-being. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 16(2), 168-177. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2019.1689425
Algoe, S. B. (2012). Find, remind, and bind: The functions of gratitude in every relationships. Social and Personality Psychology Compass 6(6), 455-469. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2012.00439.x
Nate Deichert is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Black Hills State University in South Dakota. His current research focuses on the stress-buffering effects of gratitude.
Erin Fekete is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Interim Associate Dean and Director of Psychological Science at the University of Indianapolis. Her current research focuses on factors that help individuals become more resilient to the negative effects of health-related stigma.