Improving your relationship using gratitude and reward

There is strong evidence that gratitude is healthy. Photo by Hanny Naibaho on Unsplash

Gratitude is a positive glow, a feeling of thankfulness in response to a person, thing, action or event.  Reward is a gift of something nice in response to a particular action.  Gratitude is more of an after-the-event thing: we are not seeking to change anything, except perhaps to express our thanks.  Reward is more purposeful: we are usually seeking to promote good behaviour.

The opposite of gratitude is resentment, a negative shadow in our minds.  And the opposite of reward is punishment, a defensive attempt to stop undesirable behaviour.  Many relationships get trapped in a cycle of resentful feelings, and the punishment of undesired behaviour.


GRATITUDE VERSUS RESENTMENT – There is a strong evidence base that gratitude is healthy.  (See for instance this link from Harvard Health.)  Resentment, in contrast, can be corrosive and bad for health.  (See, for instance, this link by Allan Schwarz.)

REWARD VERSUS PUNISHMENT – Happy relationships are characterised by the reward of appropriate and loving behaviour; in contrast, unhappy relationships are often characterised by punishing and neglectful behaviour (see this link from Psychology Today for a discussion).

But it is not true to say that punishment doesn’t work.  Context is very important.  (See, for instance, this link for an experimental discussion of the complexity in one particular field of research.)  Certainly, some evolutionary models suggest that punishment can make an ally more cooperative, but at a cost (see for instance this link).


Broadly speaking, gratitude and reward can have a great part in improving relationships, but it’s best if their use is mutual.  If one participant is grateful and willing to reward good behaviour, but the other is resentful and punishing, then the imbalance can be unhealthy for both.


Here are three tips for reintroducing gratitude into your relationships:

  1. WHEN YOU FEEL GRATEFUL, EXPRESS IT – We all have passing feelings of happiness, but unless we catch and express them, how is anyone else to know?  Get used to telling others about your positive feelings more often.
  2. REINFORCE YOUR EXPRESSIONS OF GRATITUDE –  You may feel that saying ‘thanks’ is enough.  But what if the other person hardly hears it?  If appropriate, consider backing it up with a physical demonstration such as a hug, a handshake, a pat on the back, a smile, or good eye contact.  Or perhaps a gift, a favour, a meal or a party could work.  There are so many ways to say thank you.
  3. TAILOR YOUR GRATITUDE TO THE PERSON – It may be that the other person finds it hard to receive gratitude.  They may not be used to it; or they may suspect hypocrisy or insincerity.  Find out what works for them, and take that into account.


Here are three tips for including reward in your relationships:

  1. BE TIMELY AND EXPLICIT – Make sure you act promptly, and express clearly exactly what you’re rewarding.
  2. TAILOR YOUR REWARDS TO THE PERSON – What you give has to mean something positive to the other.  There’s nothing wrong with gathering information on what works for them.  Make it a true treat.
  3. REWARD ONLY GOOD BEHAVIOUR – If you like kindness, then try to reward kindness, but try not to reward unkindness.  Many people unintentionally reward awful behaviour from partners.  This is understandable in terms of keeping the peace, but it actually rewards the abuse.


If you find yourself stuck in unhealthy relationships, maybe ask yourself a couple of questions:

  • Is the prevailing atmosphere one of gratitude or resentment?
  • Are the main channels of influence based around reward or punishment?

If you look into your own heart and discover that you feel resentful, and want to punish the other, then you are likely to be feeling unhealthy because of it, and there is work to do.

Gratitude is a happy state of mind, one of the most important in sustaining wellbeing.  And reward, appropriately used, encourages others to behave in the interests of the relationship, without causing costly conflict.

Maybe, today, send one message of gratitude to someone important to you.

And maybe, today, when someone does something helpful, reward it as soon as possible, with something that means something to them, even if it’s just a smile.