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The psychology behind a thank you

Updated Thursday, 9th October 2014

Find out how saying 'thank you', making a cup of tea and The Great British Bake Off can tackle mental health issues and make people happier. 

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The words thank you spelt out with cut out paper surrounded by a mini toy house and trees. Creative commons image Icon Jen Collins under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license Saying 'thank you' can do wonders for your health and wellbeing Criticism of ourselves and others is a major element of both human conflict and mental health problems, so the expressing gratitude with a simple 'thank you' could be regarded as a compassionate practice to counter to that.

In mental health, criticism is at the core and is common in our culture – we’re encouraged to be highly critical with ourselves, and that often goes along with putting people down to try and make ourselves feel better. If we can focus on appreciation and treating people kindly – and, most importantly, letting them know that we appreciate them - this can help with mental health. Receiving gratitude is of huge value, helping people to realise they’re making a valuable contribution to the world, which generally improves their self-confidence.

Reality TV, advertising and gossip magazines are aspects of popular culture which can easily contribute socially to people’s need to put people down rather than appreciate them. So there are, perhaps, less thank yous said today than decades ago. We have a culture of ‘bad news sells’. There’s very little celebration in the headlines these days; we’re keen to knock people down and see what they’re doing ‘wrong’. Robin Williams was knocked down a few years ago for a dip in his career, and it’s only now, after his death, that he’s being celebrated.

We live in a critical society, one of the main reasons that people have mental health problems is the culture we live in. We’re constantly being told we need to be thinner, have more friends or earn more money, so it’s no wonder we end up feeling disappointed. We’re taught to compare ourselves to others and we often put others down to make ourselves feel better. This, in fact, doesn’t make us feel better at all; actually, doing something kind generally makes us feel better, as does appreciating where we are instead of constantly attempting to change it. The more compassion we express, the better it is for mental health.

A cake with yellow icing and pink sugar flowers saying thank you in icing writing. Creative commons image Icon Angela Greene under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license The GBBO competition promotes appreciation and support The Great British Bake Off is a good example when it comes to expressing kindness. The contestants of this TV show help and support each other through the challenges, they’re truly upset when peers are eliminated, they don’t slate their fellow bakers and they’re thankful for their place on the show. Save for the ‘bin-cident', the show seems to promote a culture of appreciation.

The OU’s Enduring Love project found that when adults were asked to identify two things their long term partner does to make them feel appreciated, saying ‘thank you’ was the top answer. Ways of expressing thanks varied from ‘she thanked me for cooking dinner and ate it even though it was awful’ to telling the children they have a great mother and making a cup of tea. 

But when is saying 'thank you' a bad thing? Thanking another person, particularly in a relationship, can feel like a power struggle, promoting one person’s contribution to the relationship over another’s, or making the other person feel obligated to express gratitude back. ‘Gratitude’ also implies the person doing the thanking has less power so ‘appreciation’ is perhaps a better word.

It’s also worth thinking about why you’re expressing appreciation, what you are going to do to say thanks, and how it might be received. The important thing is that the focus is on them rather than on you, and that it is done in a consensual manner. For example, sending somebody a strip-o-gram, or presenting them with a moving letter just when they are in the middle of something and not in a safe place to shed a few tears, might not be the best ideas!

Thinking about the things we value as they happen, and expressing thanks for them, can be a great way to cultivate both compassion and the ability to appreciate the present moment, all of which can be incredibly valuable for our wellbeing and that of those around us.

And finally, thank you for reading this. 

This article was based on an interview with Dr Meg Barker regarding our recent 'thank you' campaign. Follow #OU_thanks on social media to find out more. 

Discover more about the power of 'thank you'

 

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