Giving Thanks: UM Professor Explains How Gratitude Can Change Relationships

Thanksgiving is right around the corner, and while its moniker suggests a time for giving thanks, sometimes that's easier said than done -- particularly when familial relations are involved. It's easy to be grateful for your kinfolk from afar. Not so easy when they're invading your personal space and badgering you about when you're going to get married and POP OUT THOSE GRANDBABIES ALREADY.

Miami's own Michael E. McCullough, professor of psychology and director of the Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory at UM, is a world-renowned expert on gratitude, forgiveness and generosity.

Given the upcoming onslaught of holiday stress, we spoke to McCullough about why gratitude exists, how it affects relationships, and what we can do to make more of it happen.

See also: Kindred Spirits Sanctuary in Ocala: A Haven For Turkeys

McCullough's research has focused on the evolutionary origins of gratitude. He and his team have asked burning questions like: Why does the emotion exist? How does it help us? Why is it only applicable in certain situations?

"One of the things that I think is interesting and puzzling about gratitude is that you stop being grateful for things once they become the new norm," McCullough explains. "As long as something is new and unexpected or it's coming from a person that you didn't expect, you tend to feel gratitude for it."

Because let's be real -- we're never grateful when our mom makes our favorite dinner, or our boyfriend gives us the same flowers for the 700th time, or our BFF gives us their hand-me-downs, again.

"What we've come to think gratitude is for is signaling to you that there's somebody out there in the world who might care about your welfare more than you thought they did," says McCullough.

And people who care about your welfare are people who can help you survive. These are the people you want to spend time with, whether you're a caveman or a bartender. Because we don't tend to experience deep need in our society -- lack of food or incapacitation or inability to care for our children, we don't rely as much on other people, McCullough explains. But our brains were built to.

"In the kind of world that our brains evolved to live in, you had to depend on other people. This is crazy to think about, but the best estimates anthropologists have come up with, people who live in non-state societies, the average hunter/gatherer is so sick that he or she cannot go out and feed him or herself one day out of ten."

Incapacitating illness ONE DAY OUT OF TEN.

And here we are, concerned about Kim Kardashian's ass and the release date of Starbuck's praline chestnut latte: #firstworldproblems

"I think what makes a difference for happiness is not so much that you can buy your way to the things you need but it's that you have people that are willing to help you get hold of the things you need," says McCullough.

No man is an island, after all.

So how do you cultivate gratitude, both for yourself and those you interact with?

"I think what the mind wants is people who care about you, so what you do is you look for opportunities to become valuable to other people," McCullough says.

"That doesn't mean you go around always trying to help every little old lady across the street, but when you see someone who's having a need or struggle or you imagine that they are, take the time to say, wait a minute, I'm going to just go back in an unobtrusive way and just try to let that person know that I care and find out if there's some way I might be able to help them through something that they're struggling with."

In other words, keep an eye out for opportunities to assist others in unexpected ways.

"It's looking for those opportunities -- not to be a creepy burden to people, but just to find needs that you might be able to meet at a really low cost to yourself but could mean so much to somebody."

Those are the kinds of circumstances that foster gratitude, and can lead to deep and meaningful relationships.

But it's not just for strangers. Despite the fact that we tend to stop being grateful for routine behaviors, long-term relationships aren't doomed to be bereft of gratitude.

According to McCullough, we can cultivate appreciation by violating other people's expectations (in a positive way, obviously).

"I really do think that's the whole key, in existing relationships, in new relationships, in friendships, probably in marriages," McCullough explains. "Marriages bring their own troubles and for them to mature and become richer with time, you have to violate your spouse's expectations, you have to go above and beyond ultimately."

The key is that these offerings be unexpected, i.e., different from the routine chores or functions we perform in a relationship.

As far as Thanksgiving, McCullough suggests there are countless ways to show people you care.

"I think opening your home or your kitchen wherever it is that you spend Thanksgiving Day and violating somebody's expectation by involving them, whether you make a big meal or not, you're just making it clear that you care more about their company than whatever inconvenience or expense you'll incur to make that happen."

So notice people, think about their needs, and make an effort to do right by them. Simple concepts, really, but they're the path to grateful living.

"That's what we want more of in our lives is for people to notice that we have needs, to notice that we have preferences and concerns and will reach out and try to help us," says McCullough.

"That's the kind of experiments on gratitude we're really looking at right now. People who violate your expectations in a positive way are the kind of people who make you grateful, and the kind of people you want to hang out with more."

You can follow McCullough's research on his website and via Twitter.

Follow Hannah on Twitter @hannahgetshappy.

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Hannah Sentenac covers veg food, drink, pop culture, travel, and animal advocacy issues. She is also editor-in-chief of
Contact: Hannah Sentenac