You might know Abby Wambach as one of the most celebrated soccer players in the world, a World Cup winner and Olympic gold medalist. But in a commencement speech earlier this year to the “bad-ass women” of Barnard College’s class of 2018, she hinted at a phenomenon that has nothing to do with soccer.
Recounting her experience receiving an ESPY award, Wambach said that as she stood on the stage watching her career highlights “with the cameras rolling and the fans cheering … I looked around and had a moment of awe. I felt so grateful to be there … like we women had finally made it.” Later in her hotel room, however, Wambach said:
It hit me that I’d spent most of my time during my career the same way I’d spent my time on that ESPYs stage. Just feeling grateful. Grateful to be one of the only women to have a seat at the table. I was so grateful to receive any respect at all for myself that I often missed opportunities to demand equality for all of us. … Like all little girls, I was taught to be grateful. I was taught to keep my head down, stay on the path, and get my job done.
Wambach’s reflection on gratitude raises an interesting question: Are women socialized to feel gratitude differently from men? Do men feel less thankful? Does that give them an advantage over women? Or is gratitude a strength for women? The research to date suggests that women do tend to feel more grateful than men—and that this isn’t necessarily to their detriment. While a surfeit of gratitude may sometimes have negative consequences for women, a gratitude deficit may have worse repercussions for men.
Are men less grateful than women?
While we all likely know super-grateful men and unthankful women, research suggests that men, on average, are less grateful than women. For example, a 2012 survey of 2,000 Americans, commissioned by the John Templeton Foundation, found evidence of a gratitude gender gap: “Women are more likely than men to express gratitude on a regular basis (52 percent women/44 percent men), feel that they have much in life to be thankful [for] (64 percent women/50 percent of men), and express gratitude to a wider variety of people.”
Studies of middle school and high school students, undergraduates, and older adults have found that women report feeling slightly more grateful than men in their day-to-day lives (what psychologists term trait or dispositional gratitude). Studies have also found that women were more likely to report feeling grateful to God than were men. Importantly, there is also some evidence that men, on average, are less likely to express gratitude, too.
“Sometimes the gender differences in gratitude are overblown,” says Phil Watkins, professor of psychology at Eastern Washington University. “But generally speaking it is true that women tend to be more grateful than men.”
So it appears from the research that the average man may be slightly less grateful—or report feeling less grateful—than the average woman. But is this difference meaningful?
“The effect is small, but just because it’s small doesn’t mean it’s not meaningful,” says Todd Kashdan, professor of psychology and director of the Laboratory for the Study of Social Anxiety, Character Strengths, and Related Phenomena at George Mason University.
Kashdan notes that the gender difference is larger for expressing gratitude than experiencing it—and the effect is bigger for older men than younger ones.
“Based on baby boomers, we know that there’s a particular psychological profile of being a little bit more rigid, masculine,” he says. “They encapsulate the essence of masculinity with all of its good sides and bad sides. This is one of the bad sides.”
There is limited evidence that this gratitude gender disparity may be particularly bad for American men—at least compared to German men. A 1988 study comparing the experience of emotions in men and women of different ages from the United States and Germany found that German men reported experiencing gratitude significantly more often than American men did, and they viewed gratitude more positively—even “characterizing it as one of the most constructive emotions.”
American men, on the other hand, tended to report that gratitude was an undesirable and difficult-to-express emotion (even finding it humiliating in some cases). In fact, over a third of older men from the U.S. (aged 35-50) said they would prefer to conceal gratitude than to openly express it.
Does being less grateful hurt men?
Research suggests that there are downsides for men who struggle with gratitude. For starters, they’re missing out on the well-known benefits of gratitude, such as increased happiness and life satisfaction. Watkins’s work, for example, has found that the relationship between gratitude and well-being is as least as strong for men as it is for women.
“If anything, it looks like gratitude is more important to the well-being of men than it is for women,” says Watkins.
Perhaps more importantly, men who have difficulties with gratitude in general—and especially in saying “thanks” aloud—may have a harder time building and maintaining relationships.
This includes workplace relationships. “Gratitude is one of the easiest forms of social glue to create and maintain alliances in the workplace. It’s simple. It’s honest. It’s genuine,” says Kashdan. “So if men are less likely to express their gratitude to other people, they are essentially shutting off a valve for forming alliances.”
Why do some men struggle with gratitude?
Why might some men have a harder time experiencing and expressing gratitude?
It turns out that receiving a gift, a favor, or help from someone else may be a more emotionally complicated experience for men, generally speaking.
For example, Watkins says his work has found that the correlation between feeling gratitude and indebtedness—an obligation to repay a benefit—is about twice as high for men as it is for women (although the correlation overall is still quite low). And a 2009 study by Kashdan’s group found that men reported feeling less gratitude and more obligation and burden than did women after receiving something of value or need. Women, in general, reported feeling less uncertain and less conflicted by the experience.
Culture likely plays a role in this mixing of indebtedness and gratitude, especially for American men, as was proposed in the paper describing gratitude differences in American and German men:
It is perhaps because of the strong cultural expectations in the U.S. that men be autonomous and fully self-sufficient that there may be a reluctance among American men to express gratitude. To them, gratitude may signify a failure to act in a self-sufficient manner and its expression might be taken to reflect dependency and weakness in relation to others.
“Men are less willing to admit their dependence on others than women are,” says Watkins. “We’ve argued that gratitude is heavier for men than it is for women.”
Additionally, the culture of masculinity in the United States, which has tended to eschew vulnerability, may make experiencing—and expressing—gratitude difficult for some men. “The assumption has always been: Trust people and then you can be vulnerable,” says Kashdan. “And now the research is pretty clear that when you are vulnerable, this is what allows you to form and establish trust.”
In fact, it may be impossible to be completely independent and invulnerable and still experience true gratitude.
“Gratitude requires you to be vulnerable,” says Kashdan. “You essentially have to acknowledge the fact that you cannot get through life without the benefits and the gifts and the strengths and the social resources and the intellectual resources of other people. … You have to admit that you are not whole without other people.”
There’s another barrier to gratitude that applies to all genders. In a new study by Amit Kumar and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago, participants wrote gratitude letters to people who had touched their lives in a meaningful way. The experimenters then asked the participants to predict how the recipient of the letter would feel after reading the letter, and they asked the recipients how they actually felt. The result? Letter writers underestimated the positive impact of their letters and the surprise that recipients felt about the content of the letters. They also overestimated how awkward the recipients felt.
“Wise decisions are guided by an accurate assessment of the expected value of action,” write Kumar and Epley. “Underestimating the value of prosocial actions, such as expressing gratitude, may keep people from engaging in behavior that would maximize their own—and others’—well-being.”
The good news is that multiple studies show that gratitude activities, such as keeping a gratitude journal or writing gratitude letters, can have serious benefits.
Indeed, some research suggests that men—and boys—may have the most to gain by trying to increase the amount of gratitude they feel and express.
For example, one study using gratitude journals found that only the male students became significantly more thankful by the end of the four-week experiment. In addition, those guys felt more like they belonged at their school, which suggests that this type of activity could help students—particularly boys—feel more supported.
While the jury is still out as to whether gratitude activities definitively have better outcomes for men as compared to women, a 2015 study by Watkins’s group found that men who wrote down three things that made them feel grateful each day for a week became significantly happier compared to women assigned to the same activity.
“We argued that women are already doing a lot of the kind of cognitive habits like counting your blessings might train you to do,” says Watkins. “The interesting thing about that is that men enjoyed the exercises less than women, which is what we predicted, but they actually gained more from them.”
What are the best ways to get more grateful?
Let’s say you’re a man, woman, or non-binary person who has struggled with gratitude and is interested in becoming more grateful. There are a few evidence-based gratitude activities you could try. These include gratitude journals, gratitude letters, gratitude mediations, savoring walks, and mental subtraction activities.
An exercise like one of those might feel hard, at first—but displeasure may be a sign that you need to keep at it, Watkins argues.
“Sometimes our biggest barriers to happiness are there because they are things we need to overcome and may not be that enjoyable,” he says. “So if you’re not a very grateful person, like many men are not, to do a gratitude exercise is going to take more effort and you’re not going to enjoy it as much at first, but that may be the very thing that you need to do to overcome that obstacle to happiness.”
There may be other ways to work on gratitude skills that aren’t gratitude exercises per se. For example, Kashdan points to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which encourages people to figure out their values and create a schedule of behaviors that align with those values, as one method for increasing gratitude expression. “I think that the data are there, they’re just not under the guise of gratitude right now,” says Kashdan.
Another way to increase gratitude could be to try to address feelings of indebtedness, or at least try to make peace with feeling a mixture of indebtedness and gratitude. For instance, this could involve working on not seeing relationships as purely transactional—just because someone does something nice for you does not mean that you now owe them and need to immediately return the favor.
Luckily, there’s a relatively simple way to reduce this feeling: Just let people do nice things for you.
“If somebody wants to pay your bill or buy you something, resist the temptation to say no,” says Kashdan. Instead, “express your appreciation to them.” When you do otherwise, “you’ve stolen positive experiences from both sides … and nobody feels good.”
Equally important is to practice receiving other people’s expressions of gratitude gracefully. “This is what people aren’t talking about in the study and discussion of gratitude,” says Kashdan. “I think people suck at this possibly more than being the giver of the gratitude expression.” When someone thanks you, suggests Kashdan, “Look them in the eye. Smile.” Fight the urge to feel obligated to reciprocate.
Kashdan knows what he’s talking about, because receiving gratitude is something he’s worked at. “I’ve gotten better at this only because I talk about this stuff regularly,” he says. It’s totally OK to “let them have their moment” of gratitude and not scramble to express your own.
“If you’re intent to share your own compliment to match them, you’ve stolen the beauty of an expression of gratitude.”