- Gratitude is associated with numerous physical health and mental health benefits.
- Some people avoid expressing gratitude in person because they worry about feeling awkward or embarrassed.
- New research suggests that expressing gratitude by texting may be just as beneficial as an in-person show of appreciation.
Think back to a recent time when you felt thankful to another person—a family member, a friend, or a stranger who performed an act of kindness or benefited you in some way. Do you recall how you expressed your appreciation toward them (e.g., in-person, phone call, text)?
Do you remember if you felt more reluctant to express gratitude face-to-face than by texting, emailing, or calling? If so, you are not the only one. Indeed, expressions of appreciation, particularly face-to-face, can be associated with unpleasant emotions like guilt, embarrassment, indebtedness, or awkwardness.
However, a recent study by Sheldon and Yu, published in press in The Journal of Positive Psychology, suggests that expressing gratitude through a text message is often as beneficial and rewarding as face-to-face expressions of thankfulness.
In other words, it is possible to reduce the costs and still obtain most of the benefits of gratitude.
What are those benefits? Research indicates that expressing gratitude makes us feel good, improves well-being, and strengthens relationships. For just one example, gratitude is associated with healthier eating. It has also been linked with stronger romantic relationships—especially when gratitude is expressed in the right way and emphasizes partner responsiveness.
Let us now turn to the investigation by Yu and Sheldon, to learn more about the benefits and costs of different methods of gratitude expression.
Investigating three methods of gratitude expression
Samples: 363 students; 164 from the U.S. (59 men; median age of 21), 199 from Taiwan (43 men; median age of 21)
Participants completed an online survey. They were instructed to indicate how a particular emotion—happiness, indebtedness, awkwardness, embarrassment, meaningfulness—would make them or a friend feel as a function of the context of gratitude (i.e. face-to-face, phone call, text message).
The results showed that people expect greater meaningfulness and happiness from face-to-face (compared to less direct methods of) gratitude expression. This was true both for those expressing gratitude and those receiving expressions of gratitude. And participants, particularly in the Taiwanese sample, anticipated that indirect methods, like texting, would result in less negative effects for both the person showing appreciation and the person being thanked.
This investigation tested whether the lay theories above, meaning what people think will happen, are actually true.
Sample: 165 students; 81 Americans (30 men; median age of 22) and 84 Taiwanese (30 men; median age of 20).
This time, the survey instructed participants to recall a time when they thanked someone face-to-face or by text message and to think back to how they felt (e.g., happy, embarrassed, indebted). They were then asked to guess how the other individual might have felt.
Analysis of data showed that face-to-face expressions of gratitude were not linked with greater happiness or meaningfulness, compared to text-message communication of gratitude. However, giving thanks in face-to-face interactions (compared to texting) was associated with greater feelings of embarrassment.
This suggests that communicating one’s appreciation to a benefactor through text messaging may result in similar levels of happiness as doing so in person, minus the emotional cost of embarrassment.
Sample: 219 students; 72 from the U.S. (50 women; median age, 20) and 147 from Taiwan (103 women; median age, 21).
Students were randomly assigned to four conditions: a control condition (writing about their favorite celebrities) and three gratitude conditions (expressing gratitude face-to-face, through video calls, or by text). In the gratitude conditions, participants were instructed to express gratitude toward their benefactors involved in three recent events. For instance, in the texting condition, individuals were initially asked to describe an event that made them feel grateful, and then, in the next three days, to text their benefactors and express their appreciation to them.
- The Personal Wellbeing Index: Measures subjective well-being and satisfaction in different life domains (e.g., safety, health, relationships, standards of living).
- The Social Connectedness Scale-Revised: Evaluates connection to others (e.g., “I feel disconnected from the world around me.”).
- Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D): Assesses depression. Sample items: “I felt depressed," “I felt lonely.”
- The Oxford Happiness Questionnaire: Evaluates personal happiness. Example items include, “I am very happy,” “Life is good,” and “I laugh a lot.”
- The De Jong Gierveld loneliness scale: Measures emotional loneliness (e.g., feeling empty, feeling rejected) and social loneliness (e.g., not feeling close to others or able to trust or rely on them).
The results showed that the methods of gratitude expression “did not differ from each other in promoting positive change, in 13 out of 15 tests. The exceptions were that the text method was less effective than the video-call method for boosting Social connectedness and Oxford happiness.”
Express gratitude in whatever way you prefer
In summary, though we often expect face-to-face expressions of gratitude to be much more meaningful and rewarding (even if sometimes embarrassing or awkward) than text messaging, texting one’s gratitude appears to be nearly as beneficial and positive as a face-to-face thank you.
The third investigation, which measured overall well-being (not immediate emotional reactions), showed that expressing gratitude improved well-being almost regardless of the method of expression. As the authors explain, while the texting method had “slightly weaker effects on some of the outcomes,” such small differences are far from what many expect—that only face-to-face expression of gratefulness would be rewarding.
There are many reasons (e.g., environmental, cultural, or personal) why in-person expressions of appreciation to a benefactor might be experienced as very uncomfortable, awkward, or embarrassing. In such situations, one should consider sending a gratitude text message (or perhaps a thank-you email). As the above findings show, doing so will probably still have a significant positive effect on both the benefactor and the beneficiary. As the researchers note, “it is the effort to express more gratitude in life that matters, not the manner in which one expresses it.”