Not all relationships are good for us. If you’re not sure how to tell which of your relationships are constructive and positive, your experience of gratitude might offer a clue.

In this brief interview segment, Megan McDonough, CEO of Wholebeing Institute, and Dr. Sara Algoe, Director of the Emotions and Social Interactions in Relationships Lab at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, talk about how to tune in to how our emotions and bodies react when we’re with others.

You can watch more interviews with leading positive psychology experts here or learn more about creating wholebeing happiness here.


SA: I think of gratitude as helping to solve a central problem of human survival, which sounds a little bit overblown, but what we really need in our lives are people who are good for us, people who really look out for our best interests. And so, when we have that emotional response of gratitude, it helps us to find people who actually we might not have noticed before—so, new people in our lives who might make a good relationship partner, but also to help remind us of people who are currently in our lives who we might have just kind of started to take for granted. In that sense, gratitude can be a signal—“Oh, that’s what I love about you. Oh my gosh, I forgot how cool you are”—and so that’s the sign in their mind and then, as an emotional response, we know that emotions coordinate our mind and body and behavior in that moment and so we have evidence that gratitude helps to change the way that we think about the person. Like I just said it might be, “Oh, that’s right, I remember all these great things about you,” and also to help change our motivation in ways that might help us act more wonderfully toward the person that we’re grateful to, and those gestures can actually help to draw the benefactor into the relationship.

MM: So what I hear you saying is that we’re using our attention specifically to look around us to say what type of relationships are actually healthy for me, that build good constructive relationships, so that I can then remind myself and the others that this is a type of good relationship, not an unhealthy relationship.

SA: Yeah, and what’s so great about the emotion of gratitude is that what we really see is that it’s the spontaneous experience of gratitude that kind of naturally does this work and so, when we actually do kind of spontaneously feel grateful that is simply a signal—hey, pay attention to this person, they might be good for you. You might not even think about it consciously, like, “Oh, I really have to …” and it’s probably best if you don’t. What’s wonderful about the emotional experience is that it actually naturally unfolds and kind of naturally does its work for us, so when we experience gratitude towards someone else, our bodies just take over and help us spontaneously act in ways that might actually help us, as well as our relationship with that person.