give thanks, live thanks

Improving Relationships Through Gratitude

A Conversation with Stephanie O'Keefe '12 (MA), '17 (PhD)

Stephanie O'Keefe
Stephanie O’Keefe ’12 (MA), ’17 (PhD) Photo Credit: Michigan-Engineering Portraits

We feel grateful every day. When our efforts are acknowledged at work, when we receive a loving text message from a family member, or even when we’re welcomed home with extra slobbery kisses from furry friends. Although we all feel gratitude, we may not always express our thanks to the people we love.

When Stephanie O’Keefe ’12 (MA), ’17 (PhD) pursued her PhD at the University of Rochester, she sought to understand why exactly some of us feel gratitude regularly, but struggle to take the extra step to say, “thank you!” Stephanie was especially interested in how the expression of gratitude effects personal relationships, and how our relationships may improve with just a bit more effort to stop, reflect, and say thanks.

What was the inspiration behind your PhD thesis?

Throughout my graduate career at the University of Rochester, I was really interested in how to encourage people to engage in more positive relationship behaviors. While researching relationship maintenance mechanisms, I discovered that with gratitude specifically, people very frequently report that they feel grateful for people in their life, but the rate that they report actually expressing that gratitude is a lot lower. I was curious why people don’t always express gratitude and how that might inform our understanding of when people do take the time to do it.

What did your research show about the psychological and health benefits of gratitude?

Though my research didn’t explore health benefits directly, the benefits that I came across with gratitude when diving deep into the field and existing related work were the same benefits people get from healthy personal relationships. Gratitude, as an emotional experience, is positive and pro-social. Feeling grateful encourages us to help others and to focus more on others than on ourselves. For example, if someone does a favor for me, the next time I run into someone else I might pick up something they dropped or do something simple and nice for them. It effects not only our close relationships but relationships within our community.

“When we feel grateful, it elicits more positive behaviors and can create a continuous virtuous cycle of performing positive social behaviors.”

Your research revealed that self-control relates to gratitude expression. How do we see this in everyday life?

I found that there is a positive correlation between self-control and gratitude expression. I also conducted a diary study where people completed surveys each night for two weeks to see if daily fluctuations in self-control would influence gratitude expression. I found that on days when they reported being a little lower in their self-control than usual, they were less likely to report expressing gratitude to another person. While on days when they reported higher self-control, they were more likely to report expressing gratitude. Sometimes when we are overwhelmed with daily life or are devoting all of our resources to work and not being mindful, we might be less likely to express gratitude. Taking some time to refocus and regroup could encourage us to express gratitude to others more often or even realize that we’re experiencing it and that we could take the time to share our feelings with someone else.

What do you recommend for those who would like to grow their expression of gratitude?

One place to start would be thinking about the relationships with people who you’re already comfortable expressing your feelings to and with whom you have a high level of intimacy. Branching out from there, you could get more comfortable with exploring where it might be a little bit more threatening to express that sort of emotion. For example, maybe you’d like to thank one of your favorite professors who you found a bit intimidating but made a big impact on your life. Expressing gratitude does increase some intimacy between you and the other person, so overcoming that and allowing that vulnerability is something that could help everyone.

What experiences are you grateful for from your time at the University of Rochester?

I’m grateful for many impactful experiences with my mentor, Harry Reis. I’m grateful for the opportunity to get my start in research at the University of Rochester, and to gain a deep understanding of experimental research methods and the whole research process from start to end. The rigorous mentorship I received from him during my PhD opened up many doors in my career and gave me a more critical eye when conducting and consuming research. I will always be grateful for that. I’m also grateful for the camaraderie I developed with my graduate student cohort and peers over time. Just having those collegial relationships and social support – that really helped me get through the graduate program.

Stephanie O’Keefe is a Research Specialist in the Computer Science Department at the University of Michigan, where she is a lab manager and project manager in the Crowds & Machines Lab and interdisciplinary human computer interaction researcher at the Hybrid Intelligence Systems Center.


For more resources on gratitude, visit our give thanks, live thanks webpage.