How Gratitude Helps Relationships

Do you appreciate the importance of gratitude in your relationship?"Wham, Bam, Thank you, Ma'am" - a cryptic phrase made popular by an old Dean Martin song - was obviously written from a man's point of view. It epitomizes the kind of glib, get-it-overwith quickie that immediately makes many women cringe.

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But how often do we girls virtually do the same thing - say things we really don't mean, outside the bedroom? We're so programmed with "please" and "thank you" manners from an early age, we say "how are you" and "thanks" so often, they automatically come rolling out of our mouths, almost without thinking.

Yet, do we mean it? Are we really, sincerely interested when we ask, or thankful when we say it? I'll be honest, not usually.

Try responding to that obligatory "How are you?" with the details of your day or your aching back and watch how fast you get that look of shock and annoyance that you're actually answering. Superficiality seems to be the norm now in so many ways. Deep, sincere thank yous, given with meaning, are much rarer.

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We take a lot for granted. When I travelled to South America, I was deeply touched by how little most people had, yet how grateful they were for what they did have. Living in what we might consider abject poverty, common every-day people can be seen up and outside their handmade sod houses at 5:30 a.m, sweeping their dirt sidewalks with pride.

Here in America, we have so much, yet we concentrate mostly on what we want and wanting more. And even when we do get it, we generally aren't all that excited. In fact, the "high" of shopping all too quickly fades by the time we get the new purchase home.

But how important is gratitude, really, other than the warm and fuzzy feeling we get when someone admires us or we receive a gift? Beyond simple manners, why is gratitude in relationships so important?

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Believe it or not, there is even chemistry involved in the act of giving and receiving. "Tis better to give than receive" is one of the most famous verses in the New Testament and apparently, now it's been proven.

Jordan Grafman and his team of scientists have demonstrated that giving a present to someone else actually feels better than receiving one. Giving a gift activates Dopamine and Oxytocin releasers, those feel good neurotransmitters we all crave, whether we're addicted to love, sex or something else.

Dopamine, the neurochemical associated with reward and happiness, gets stimulated by receiving. But the interesting thing is that when someone gives, as to a charity, for instance, the same places in the brain light up and are more stimulated then when people receive rewards. The neurochemical here? Oxytocin, the nurturing one.

Controlled experiments observing acts of kindness, like gift giving, also demonstrate that there are always three people who benefit from any interchange of this type: the giver, the receiver and the observer. Giving and receiving each stimulates their own chemistry in the brain but even being a witness to generosity initiates a cascade of neurochemicals that wash the observer in good feelings.

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Scientists affirm that practicing gratitude actually alters the neurochemistry of our brain, decreasing physical pain, increasing alertness, supporting better, deeper sleep, promoting overall well-being.

It's contagious. In research reported by Fowler and Christakis in Science Daily, when one person gives money to help others in a "public-goods game," the recipients are more likely to give their own money away to other people in future games. The gratitude and good feelings create a domino effect where the generosity of one person spreads first to three people and then to the nine people who they interact with in the future, and even to others in subsequent waves.

When you're young and in love - or lust - your brain and body are actually high on chemicals and hormones the body secretes in response to the excitement. The passion of sexual love and lust is dominated by Dopamine, that happiness and reward stuff. It's the same one that drives many addictions. But what about when the fire cools?

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When the flame of passionate, ecstatic love subsides to a steady simmer, it's the nurturing, bonding behaviors and gratitude that keep the harmony and good feelings flowing. When love mellows, simple things like smiling, eye-to-eye contact, skin-to-skin contact, caressing, cuddling, giving a treat, surprise or unsolicited compliment to our partner all generate more gratitude and Oxytocin that can nurture and sustain a relationship for the long term.

The bottom line here is this: Whatever you focus on, whatever you put your energy into, you naturally get more of. It's part of the laws of the universe, the physics of momentum. Focus on your misery, and you're bound to stay stuck in it. Focus on any scrap of goodness you can possibly find in your life and you are taking a step toward your freedom out of it.

Sometimes it's all you can do. Feeling gratitude for what you do have, even if it's little, actually shifts your mindset and your energy. It gets you out of yourself and your "poor me" state, it opens your heart and creates a new momentum that continues and amplifies, producing some truly amazing results.

Gratitude heals. And wham bam, just like that, it can open doors that sometimes nothing else can.'

Written by Nancy Lee Bentley for YourTango.com.

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