Gratitude and Love in Cultural Perspective

The grateful attitude and emotions toward other people and life are referred to as gratitude. When we express gratitude for what other people and life have given us, we experience several situational emotions. When we are grateful, thankful, and appreciative to someone for something, we can feel a variety of positive emotions. Gratitude and love commonly go hand in hand and are closely related to each other.

Gratitude and Love in Our Life

As I showed in another article, gratitude and love frequently go together. Not only does the experience of gratitude entail the emotion of love, but love also implies the expression of gratitude.

Love frequently involves expressions of gratitude and appreciation. Love, gratitude, and appreciation are deeply relational feelings that encompass a wide range of dispositions, moods, and situational emotions and feelings. Participants use a variety of methods to express their feelings of love, including loving others, loving oneself, receiving love, and feeling thankful for love.

A Chinese Cultural Perspective on Gratitude and Love

The indigenous Chinese concept of “enqing” means grateful love (Chen & Li, 2007). This type of love includes the feelings of responsibilities and obligations associated with a spouse’s feelings of appreciation, gratitude, and indebtedness for what the partner does for the marriage. The origins of “enqing” are in Chinese relationship orientation and the traditional Confucian value of duty in marriage.

While Western marital intimacy is characterized by feelings of togetherness and compatibility, Chinese marital intimacy is characterized by feelings of admiration and gratitude.

The Chinese Concept of “Enqing”

People in traditional Chinese society typically place little emphasis on marital intimacy. Instead, “enqing”—the expression of gratitude and admiration—may bind Chinese couples closely together.

Many researchers have identified “enqing” as the primary element of Chinese marital affection and love (e.g., Li & Chen, 2002; Tang, 1991; see for a review, Karandashev, 2019). In traditional Chinese marriage, “enqing” plays a central role in marital affection and love. The four pillars of Chinese couples’ love are:

(a) feelings of gratitude,

(b) admiration,

(c) togetherness, and

(d) compatibility

(Chen & Li, 2007).

How Gratitude and Love Develop in Chinese Marriage

Why and how does this kind of grateful love between married people grow?

In traditional Chinese culture, parents frequently arrange marriages. Under these conditions, many people got married without knowing each other well. Moreover, even after they get married, Chinese cultural norms do not consider the intimate relationship between the couple as important. The “enqing“, or expression of gratitude and admiration, develops from conjugal love and role fulfillment. That is what keeps Chinese couples together and close.

People experience intimacy more frequently in modern Taiwanese (Chinese) marriages than ever before. However, the presence of “enqing” remains. Modern Western ideas about love have an effect on Chinese marriages. Nevertheless, the traditional Chinese idea of “enqing” has not gone away (Li & Chen, 2002).

How the Expression of Gratitude Differs in Chinese and American Cultures

A series of cross-cultural studies examined the impact of verbal and nonverbal expressions of appreciation on the quality of romantic relationships in “high-context, collectivistic cultures and low-context, individualistic cultures” (Bello et al., 2010, p. 294).

The authors discovered that in cultures such as the United States and China, appreciation takes different forms and plays different roles in relationships. Participants from both countries listed specific ways they express gratitude in a romantic relationship.

The results show that Chinese participants prefer nonverbal expressions of appreciation over verbal ones, while American participants favor both verbal and nonverbal ones.

Overall, data showed that Americans use significantly more frequent expressions of gratitude in love than Chinese people. This is mostly due to the extensive use of verbal expressions in the United States. Chinese people, on the other hand, use more indirect ways to express gratitude in love than Americans see for a review, Karandashev, 2019).

Emotions Associated With Gratitude

We can characterize gratitude as the grateful attitudes toward other people and life. Gratitude also involves several situational emotions when we experience gratitude for what other people and life give to us. We can experience several positive emotions when we are grateful, thankful, and appreciative to someone for something.

What Is the Lived Experience of Gratitude?

Researchers from Sofia University in California, USA, Patty Hlava and John Elfers conducted a qualitative study to investigate the ways in which individuals experience gratitude throughout their lives. The authors also investigated the advantages of practicing and expressing gratitude, both for relationships with others and personal emotions. What does it mean for people to be grateful for their lives, and how do they feel gratitude in their somatic feelings? How does gratitude benefit our relationships, and how does it change our relationships with others?

How Emotional Is the Lived Experience of Gratitude?

In this qualitative study, the authors explored the individual narratives of the lived emotional experience of gratitude. Some descriptions identified the feelings elicited by a specific event. The other descriptions identified the generalized descriptions that people reminisce over in a wide range of examples (Hlava & Elfers, 2014).

The Gratitude Emotions of Acceptance, Comfort, and Security

Many participants in their narratives expressed emotions of acceptance of themselves and of the world associated with a sense of rightness or completeness. They also described feelings of comfort and security.

I can just be in the world and not in conflict with it. (Jennifer)

Yeah, I felt real grounded, and centered, and refreshed. (Mimi)

There is this thread of deep contentment that runs like an underground river through everything. (Albert)

I’m grateful because there’s that unconditional love and that safety and security, which makes me feel strong and powerful. (Melanie)

(Hlava & Elfers, 2014, p. 447).

The Gratitude Emotions of Being Blessed

Participants described the feelings of being fortunate, lucky, and blessed as a common theme. It was a sense of personal worth and the value of the self in relation to others. This experience of gratitude, however, was not associated with feelings of guilt or indebtedness for the benefit.

Some participants recognized their responsibility to give back in response to the gift. They feel a desire to act on that responsibility.

A sense of being blessed and of savoring every little moment. (Sue)

I don’t know if I’m going to be able to be worthy of their faith in me. (Louise)

I just remember feeling so overwhelmed with feeling blessed and feeling just joyful, feeling just fortunate. (Betty) I get really excited, and I literally feel giddy. Then I feel lucky, and then I feel humbled. Then I feel like I should share it. (Melanie)

(Hlava & Elfers, 2014, p. 447).

The Gratitude Emotions of Joy

Participants described the positive emotion-experience of gratitude in terms of the pleasant sensations of euphoria, joy, and happiness.

A wonderful state of euphoria; pleasurable sensations, both mental and physical; happiness of memories. (Doris)

I was smiling, on top of my feeling a sense of joy in my face, and then a welling up in my eyes. (Betty)

I feel lighter and definitely happier. Gratitude is like sunshine. (Sarita) Then I was just really happy. I thought I was like Disneyland happy. (Link)

(Hlava & Elfers, 2014, p. 447).

The Gratitude Emotions of Love

The experience of love frequently expresses gratitude. Both love and gratitude are highly relational emotions, and both embody a broad affective range of feelings and contexts. Participants expressed the sentiments of love in a variety of ways, such as by loving another, loving oneself, being loved, and feeling grateful for being loved. The sentiments of love were also felt as being accepted, supported, protected, and understood.

Overwhelming love, I would say. In love with them, and feeling loved by them. (Betty)

I feel love. (pause) It’s kind of funny; because I think love and gratitude are almost like twins. You don’t have to love someone you’re grateful to, but it certainly seems to enhance gratitude and a lot of times if I’m grateful, really, I’m feeling loved. (Nancy)

How grateful I was to have been involved and been a part of such a wonderful and loving family. I really was overcome with just a feeling of gratefulness and almost to the point where it brought me to tears. (Lou)

(Hlava & Elfers, 2014, p. 448).

How People Feel Gratitude

Being grateful makes our relationships with other people stronger. When people feel grateful, the way they feel grateful and the emotions that accompany this experience strengthen their sense of belonging to the group and their connectedness with others.

What Is Gratitude?

Gratitude is a set of dispositions and emotions characterized by being thankful and appreciative for what other people and life give to us. There are many things for which we may be grateful.

Gratitude is daily and widely involved in our interpersonal communication and relationships. Clearly, gratitude plays a crucial role in interpersonal relationships. An essential component of practicing gratitude is recognizing and appreciating the people around us and the things they do for us.

Gratitude is an essential component of romantic and companionate relationships. In some respects, gratitude is the feeling of being thankful for what another person has done or continues to do for us.

Being thankful makes us feel better, both physically and mentally. It makes our lives and relationships better in many ways. Some people tend to be grateful more frequently than others. How does their experience of being grateful reflect on their emotional experience and feelings? How do grateful individuals feel gratitude?

A Study of the Lived Experience of Gratitude

Patty Hlava and John Elfers, researchers at Sofia University in California, conducted a qualitative study exploring how people feel gratitude in their lives. They also examined the benefits of experiencing and expressing gratitude. What is the meaning of gratitude for their lives, relationships, and emotions?

How Emotionally Do Grateful People Feel Gratitude?

Being grateful is an emotional experience characterized by varying intensity. People experience gratitude with subjective feelings that can range from low intensity to overwhelming.

Many participants of the study reported their feelings of tearfulness and overwhelming emotion—the sense of taking the breath away, of bursting with feeling, or of fullness. Men and women described the range of emotional responses to gratitude, from mild feelings of appreciation to the sensations of upwelling tearfulness. The tears, however, were not from sadness. Some admitted that the power of the emotion made them silent, uncomfortable, and embarrassed.

Participants commonly feel gratitude, describing it with positive emotions such as joy, release, love, peace, security, and happiness.

Some examples of quotes from participants are:

I start tearing because I’m so—it’s an overwhelming emotion. It’s an overflowing with joy kind of feeling. (Joe)

My eyes fill with tears, but I do not feel sadness. I feel at a loss for words and am filled with gratitude and love. (Zoe)

I just burst into tears, and I was crying, I mean, in addition to just the positive feelings of just gratitude and excitement. (Louise)

(Hlava & Elfers, 2014, p. 444).

Somatic Experiences in the Heart and Chest

These are the sensations of warmth and the feeling that the chest and heart are expanding. It is often described as fullness, swelling, or lightness. Participants often described the feelings in their hearts as softening or melting into something larger. The feeling of the breath was light and expansive.

The feelings in the heart and chest are sometimes identified as the “core” and central feelings of people’s gratitude. Several quotes from the participants include:

I noticed a fullness in my chest like my heart is bursting, and it’s full. Not an uncomfortable feeling, like a warm feeling, almost like love but not as localized or something. It’s less concentrated. It’s just a bigger feeling. (Allison)

A slow dawning, more of a warm feeling inside of you rather than something that suddenly catches you by surprise. (Louise)

[The heart sensation] is not flat. It has dimension. That is why I feel it is the core. (Sophie)

(Hlava & Elfers, 2014, p. 445).

The sensation of warmth is another feature of how people somatically feel gratitude. Participants frequently indicated the feelings in their upper and middle backs. They also experienced the rush and flush of warmth in the abdomen, the skin, the face, the throat, and the feeling of warmth and flushing in the entire body. These warm feelings in the chest are commonly associated with sensations of elevation.

The Somatic and Psychological Feeling of Release

The way people feel gratitude is commonly associated with somatic and psychological feelings of release. They frequently described these feelings as letting go, a feeling of lightness, a weight lifted, liberation, and freedom.

I had, for lack of a better term, a long internal sigh. I was so relieved. (Link)

I just feel so relieved, just like something left my body. (Aneska)

It was like I had a huge weight lifted off of me. (Cait)

I remember being released. I was completely and utterly free. (Herbie)

(Hlava & Elfers, 2014, p. 446).

Participants describe these feelings as a deeply somatic experience in terms of shoulders relaxing, a reduction in stress levels, a lighter, bouncier step, and a weight lifted off.

How Gratitude Changes Our Relationships

Social bonding entails reciprocal giving and receiving. These actions are essential for the proper formation of obligations between individuals and the maintenance of interpersonal relationships within human communities.

Because of this, gratitude clearly plays a vital role in interpersonal relationships. Recognizing and appreciating the people around us and the things they do for us is an essential component of practicing gratitude. Being grateful improves both our physical and mental well-being. It has a multiplicity of positive effects on our lives and on the relationships we maintain.

Due to gratitude, people feel several transformations in their relationships: personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal. They feel connected with

  • (1) a part of oneself,
  • (2) an individual or group, or
  • (3) something outside oneself.

(Hlava & Elfers, 2014, p. 439).

The Sense of Personal Self Within a Relationship

Here are some examples of quotes:

It is a connection with myself, connection with nature, feeling comfortable in my own skin. (Gwen)

I do think it’s—I think it’s—it is almost—it is kind of a Zen experience in a very active way. But, yeah, I definitely feel connection and at peace with myself. (Ramona)

(Hlava & Elfers, 2014, p. 440).

The Sense of Connection with Another Individual, a Group, a Family, or a Community

On a deeper level, it is a sense of belonging to another individual, a group, a family, or a community. Here are some examples of quotes:

It’s those grand gestures [of gratitude] that sort of remind you of what you have: wow, that person really is there, and is connected, and is—so it sort of supports the daily sense of gratitude and reinforces it. (Sally)

I feel like a light feeling, and it’s a great feeling of just the love of my family, almost—kind of like sharing, that gratefulness that I’m feeling, it’s almost like it’s coming back at me, and it just puts a smile on my face and a feeling of satisfaction. (Lou)

Yeah, overwhelmed and probably, well, grateful that they’re there because who else would celebrate with me right now when I didn’t know I needed to celebrate. They knew what I needed before I knew that I needed it, and I was really grateful for that. (Roxy)

(Hlava & Elfers, 2014, p. 440).

The Sense of Connection with Something Larger or Beyond the Self

This sense of connection includes an awareness of something larger or beyond the self. This sense also engages an experience of awe. Here are some examples of quotes:

But I guess it would be some form of a spiritual connection, just a very direct, very personal connection with nature, with the ocean in particular, just being in the water. But it’s more of an experience of bliss or being at peace with the environment and of just feeling full. (Luis)

I think when I’m in those moments [of gratitude], there’s a sense of connection to something greater than me, whatever that is, I’m not even sure. I mean sometimes I call it “God” or “Higher Power,” and I think that’s part of what the sense of wellbeing and relaxation is, is the sense that everything is okay just as it is. I’m a part of that; I’m not separate from that. (Allison)

It really was a feeling of—like I had a connection, some connection outside of myself, and it’s a wonderful feeling. (Lou)

Well, nature provides me with a sense of the oneness or the connection of all things being connected. So when I am in nature, I am connected, maybe I’m alone but I’m not lonely. (Sue)

(Hlava & Elfers, 2014, p. 440-441).

Power Poses Can Make You Feel Confident

The senses of touch, body positions, and movements play a significant role in both romantic relationships and sexual encounters. Our physical attraction is evident in body postures, sitting close to one another, cuddling, and kissing.

How good is it to show that you are assertive in your body language?

Your “power poses” and confident behavior can be beneficial in relationships. Traditional cultures tend to praise the assertive behavior of men but not of women. Feminists may think differently.

What if you do not have an assertive personality? Can you become more assertive?

The studies have shown various ways to become more assertive in your attitudes, behaviors, and relationships. One of these is a seemingly simple technique: you just need to regularly train so-called “power poses” (Carney et al., 2010; Körner et al., 2020; 2022).

What Are the “Power Poses”?

The “power poses” are the wide-body poses, the superman-like poses. Researchers examined the effects of two types of body positions:

  • expansive body positions that reflect dominance, for example, standing or sitting in an expansive way and taking up as much space as possible;
  • upright postures, for example, standing or sitting straight (versus slouched); that body position is the nonverbal display of prestige.
ROBERT KÖRNER AND ASTRID SCHÜTZ, A Stronger Self Through Wide Body Positions, March 10, 2023

What the Studies of the Effects of the “Power Poses” Showed

Some researchers found that power posing increases people’s self-esteem and confidence, while others did not find these effects (Körner et al.).

Early studies, for example, showed that adopting wide-body positions for one or two minutes

“can make you feel powerful, risk-oriented, and increases the male sex hormone testosterone and decreases the stress hormone cortisol.”

Robert Körner and his colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of 128 studies conducted between 1982 and 2022 with more than 10,000 participants on the effects of power poses. The cultural samples of participants were largely from the U.S. and European countries.

How Power Pose Affects Motivation and Behavior of People

The results of a meta-analysis of 128 studies conducted with more than 10,000 participants on the effects of power poses have indicated that

“Expansive body positions make people feel more self-confident, powerful, and in a better mood. People who engaged in dominant poses felt somewhat more confident, powerful, and positive than people who stood or sat in a slumped or contracted way. “

Most researchers investigated the differences in effects between high- and low-power poses. They usually did not include a neutral body position in their studies.

The effects of expansive and upright body positions were the same; both of these body positions affected people’s self-perceptions.

These body positions of people also impacted their real behavior, affecting how they became action-oriented and risk-prone through the poses. However, the effect of body positions on behavior was not robust.

The power poses, on the other hand, had almost no effect on blood pressure, heart rate, or hormones.

Body Positions Have Different Effects for People in Western and Eastern Societies

According to multiple studies, gender and age make no differences in the effects of body positions. However, studies found the effects of body positions on motivation and behavior in Western countries, such as Germany and the U.S. However, these effects were somewhat smaller in Eastern countries such as Malaysia and Japan.

Do “Power Body Positions” Really Help?

Robert Körner and his colleagues concluded that

“the adoption of expansive body positions for just one or two minutes can make people feel better.”

ROBERT KÖRNER AND ASTRID SCHÜTZ, A Stronger Self Through Wide Body Positions, March 10, 2023

So, the power body positions and upright postures can help people as a simple technique to increase their subjective experience of confidence, yet they do not necessarily change their behavior or relationships.

Why Is Gratitude Important?

Gratitude is more than just saying “thank you.” It entails recognizing and appreciating the people and what they do for us. It is the appreciation for whatever our lives bring us. Gratitude makes us feel better and lifts our mood. It improves our lives and relationships in many regards.

As Buddha, the religious teacher of South Asian culture (the 6th or 5th century BCE) and founder of Buddhism, taught,

“Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful.”

 Buddha, the teacher and founder of Buddhism, a religious and philosophical system of southern and eastern Asia, live in India, approximately the 6th–4th century BCE

National Cultural Traditions of Gratitude

The customs of gratitude appear to be highly valued across civilizations and cultures. People expressed their appreciation in the ritual of “giving thanks” to God, spirits, mother nature, and others.

People of many societies in history and nowadays celebrate Thanksgiving or similar festival holidays on various dates. It is a good cultural custom to give thanks and appreciate what we get and what others give to us.

As William Bennett, an American politician and commentator, told

“Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that thankfulness is indeed a virtue.”

William Bennett, American teacher and scholar, born 1943, New York, USA

American Thanksgiving is probably among the most important holidays of the year. Americans have greatly celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday for centuries.

As John F. Kennedy, an American politician and the 35th president of the United States, once said,

“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.”

John F. Kennedy, (1917–1963), American political leader and president of the United States

Or in another place, he said:

“We must find time to stop and thank the people who make a difference in our lives.”

– John F. Kennedy

Even though it falls on different dates, people in other countries also celebrate this Thanksgiving holiday. Among those countries are Canada, Grenada, Liberia, and Saint Lucia. Germany and Japan both celebrate festivals with names that are very similar.

Gratitude Is the Appreciation of Giving and Receiving

In many cases, gratitude is clearly involved in interpersonal relationships. Social bonding implies reciprocal giving and receiving. These kinds of actions are important for the proper creation of people’s obligations and the maintenance of interpersonal bonding in human communities.

An appreciation of giving and receiving is a vital part of fair and equitable relationships. This is why it is very important to express gratitude for what other people do for us. Gratitude is not only a kind gesture; it is frequently necessary for a normal and adequate relationship.

As Aafke E. Komter, a professor at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, wrote,

“Beneath the warm feelings of gratitude resides an imperative force, a force that compels us to return the benefit we have received”

(Komter, 2004, p. 195).

How People Experience Gratitude

How do people subjectively experience gratitude? The intensity and expression of gratitude are determined by an appraisal of the situations, actions, contexts, and outcomes of what a benefactor did for a recipient. People may express gratitude differently depending on how they perceive the value of what another person has done for them. Appreciation also varies depending on the benefactor’s intention and the degree of sacrifice applied in giving (McCullough & Tsang, 2004). People tend to be especially grateful and express gratitude when they receive something they want and when they feel that the giver was sensitive to their personal needs and wishes. (Algoe, Haidt, & Gable, 2008).

As an American writer and humorist, Mark Twain (1835–1910) once noted,

“The best way to cheer yourself is to try to cheer someone else up.”

Mark Twain, 1835–1910), American writer

People experience gratitude as thematic patterns of somatic feelings and an array of appraisals. The experience of gratitude also involves various emotions, such as joy, love, awe, happiness, awakening, release, peace, security, and feeling blessed. People frequently experience the somatic response to gratitude, the feelings of overwhelming emotions, and tearfulness. These emotions are frequently accompanied by a sense of taking your breath away, bursting with emotion, and fullness (Hlava & Elfers, 2014). 

These feelings and emotions are associated with sensations of being emotionally overwhelmed. Here are some examples:

“I start tearing because I’m so—it’s an overwhelming emotion. It’s an overflowing with joy kind of feeling.”

(Joe)

“My eyes fill with tears, but I do not feel sadness. I feel at a loss for words and am filled with gratitude and love.”

(Zoe)

“I just burst into tears, and I was crying, I mean, in addition to just the positive feelings of just gratitude and excitement.”

(Louise)

How Gratitude Affects Our Relationships

Gratitude is very beneficial for our relationships and can transform interpersonal connections.

Expression of gratitude plays an important role in relationship building (Algoe et al., 2008) and relationship maintenance (Hlava, 2010; Kubacka, Finkenauer, Rusbult, & Keijsers, 2011). Gratitude affects the experience of relationship boundaries between “self” and “other” (Hlava & Elfers, 2014). The expression and feeling of gratitude strengthen our bonds with those who have helped us (Algoe & Haidt, 2009).

Please, remember this saying of William James (1842–1910), an American philosopher and psychologist:

“The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.”

William James (1842–1910), American psychologist and philosopher

Happy Thanksgiving!

What Effect Do Laughter and Smiles Have on Our Relationship?

Smiling and laughing are natural ways for men and women to show other people how they feel. However, different cultures may have different rules for how individuals should express these emotions. In some Western cultures, such as the European-American one, people tend to express their emotions frequently and openly. People from other cultures, such as East Asians, laugh and smile considerably less frequently, and they are more reserved in their emotional expressions (Karandashev, 2021).

Evolutionary Functions of Smiling and Laughing

Professor Adrienne Wood and her colleague proposed that smiling and laughing could serve certain psychological functions in their evolutionary origins. They were designed to convey certain communicative messages. Among those are (1) the function of rewarding prosocial behavior, (2) the affiliative function, and (3) the function of asserting dominance in relationships.

How Smiling and Laughing Affect Our Behavior

Smiles and laughter have different effects depending on the context of actions and interactions. The effects of smiles and laughter also depend on who is smiling and laughing. When a competitor smiles at you, it can always feel dangerous. However, the studies of Adrienne Wood and her colleague suggest that the effect of smiles and laughter on the observer is partially due to physical form:

  • how symmetrical or open-mouthed the smile is,
  • how melodious or nasal the laughter is.

Professor Wood and her colleagues have looked at the social functions of smiles and laughter in a variety of ways and contexts.

Do Smiling and Laughing Improve Our Relationship?

The question of research interest is “how laughter and smiles affect our daily relationships.”

Many men and women believe that laughter and smiles help improve their interpersonal relationships. Others think they should be more reserved in their expressions of emotion and not smile too often. People from different cultures may have different explanations and cultural stereotypes in this regard.

What Did Smiling and Laughing Studies Reveal? 

 Dr. Jared Martin conducted one study in which people gave stressful speeches while an observer smiled at them in rewarding, affiliative, or dominant ways. He discovered that the stress hormone cortisol was highest when their speeches were greeted with dominance smiles and lowest when they were greeted with reward smiles. It appears that smiles are not always well received. They can be stressful at times.

In the most recent effort, researchers brought people together through laughter and smiles. Over a thousand people were shown short videos of actors smiling in positive, neutral, or dominant ways. Then, the researcher gave them two short recordings of laughter, both of which had been produced by actors, and asked them to choose the one they thought conveyed a message most like that of the smile.

Researchers discovered that people frequently pair reward smiles and laughs together, as well as affiliation smiles and laughs, but rarely pair dominance smiles and laughs.

Evidently, the relationship between a smile and an expression of humor is more nuanced than we realized.

What Do We Still Need to Know About Smiling and Laughing?

More research is needed to determine whether smiles and laughter can convey the same messages. When you’re on the phone and the recipient can’t see you, can you replace a polite smile with a polite laugh? Can you tease as well with a smile as with a laugh?

What we do know for the time being is that smiles and laughter are versatile behaviors that help us influence the emotions, thoughts, and actions of others.

For the time being, we know that smiles and laughter are adaptable behaviors that allow us to influence the emotions, thoughts, and actions of others. Smiles and laughter work in accord with humor and improve our love relationships in the early stages of a relationship as well as over time as the relationship progresses.

Why Do We Need Laughter and Smiles?

Smiling and laughing are the natural expressions of human emotions in relationships with others. The cultural norms regarding their expressions, however, vary across cultures. People in some Western cultures, such as the European-American one, commonly use them. People in other cultures, such as Eastern Asians, are more reserved in their expressions of laughter and smile much less frequently (Karandashev, 2021).

The question of research interest is “Why do we need laughter and smiles?”

Researchers most often conduct scientific studies of laughter and smiles in Western cultures, such as England and the USA.

Here is one example of a study that British anthropologist Robin Dunbar and Austrian psychologist Marc Mehu conducted in 2008 (Dunbar & Mehu, 2008). They found that strangers who were talking to each other smiled and laughed more than once every two minutes.

When Do We Laugh and Smile? 

We smile when we’re happy, excited, shy, confused, recognizing someone we don’t know, winning, or losing. We laugh when we are amused, nervous, angry, greeting a puppy, teasing, or just don’t know what to say.

Men and women usually smile and laugh when they are with other people. They intuitively anticipate that others can see their smiles and laughter. And they expect, either implicitly or explicitly, that their smile and laughter will influence other people who see and hear these emotional expressions.

Why Do We Laugh and Smile? An Evolutionary Perspective

Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, Adrienne Wood, and her colleagues are investigating how smiling and laughing can be viewed as evolutionarily ancient behaviors conveying a wide range of messages (Wood et al., 2018; 2022). They propose that smiles and laughs can serve three functions:

(1) reward,

(2) convey affiliative intentions,

(3) assert dominance.

The Rewarding Function of Laughter and Smiling

These are the smiles and laughs that make you feel good. They show how happy the smiling and laughing person is. They also thank the other person for making this person happy. It’s nice when people smile and laugh with us, especially when we know it’s because of something we did.

This is why marketing companies put happy faces on ads for everything from car insurance to toilet paper: they want people to think well of their products.

Laughter also makes people feel good, which is why laugh tracks are used in comedies.

The Evolutionary Origins of Smiling and Laughing

These gratifying smiles and laughs could evolve from mammalian “play signals.” The animals’ play signals make it clear that they mean no harm. One can see that in some ways, smiles and laughter serve the same purpose. And these signals are rewarding—they make the recipient feel good. So, they help extend the playful interaction.

The Affiliative Function of Laughter and Smiling

Yet, most smiles and laughter are not rewarding expressions of happiness. This could be our quick, closed-lip expression when greeting a passing stranger or expressing sympathy to a friend. Or, we could use the polite laugh to ease awkward tension in a group meeting.

These expressions are the shadows of those big, happy smiles and laughs. They borrow the message of friendly, harmless intentions from reward signals. Therefore, we may call these smiles and laughs “affiliation signals.” Smiles and laughter, elicited by nervousness, embarrassment, sexual attraction, friendliness, and politeness, all have the common goal of increasing affiliation.

Do All Smiles and Laughter Make People Feel Good?

Some smiles and laughter, however, are far from making the recipients feel good. They can make them feel rather bad.

We all know how it feels when people laugh at us instead of with us. People sometimes tease, mock, make fun of, or criticize someone while smiling and laughing. One may call these smiles and laughter “dominance,” because they show that someone is better than someone else.

At first glance, it seems strange to think that a play signal that means nothing bad could be changed into something not so good. But when people smile and laugh like this, they are saying,

“I think you are completely harmless and not serious.”

There may not be a better way to show that you are in charge than to act like you don’t care about someone.

Many men and women believe that smiling and laughing improve their interpersonal relationships. Others believe they should be more reserved in their emotional expressions and not smile as much. In this regard, people from different cultures may have different explanations and cultural stereotypes.

Can Sharing Bad News Improve Close Relationships?

Men and women in close relationships hope to experience joyful and optimistic times together. They are happy to share everything good that happens in their lives. The people close to them are happy to hear the good news. It is widely held that sharing in a relationship—telling another about one’s emotional experiences—makes people feel better.

What about bad news? Does it make sense to share with others in their close relationships something bad that happened to us? Some may want to avoid spoiling their good moods.

Does it help people themselves when they share with others their bad news? People often feel worse after discussing negative events that have occurred to them. They perhaps replay the negative experience in their minds.

Something even worse may occur. Social sharing tends to lower the mood of the person listening to the disclosure. But why is social sharing so popular if it has emotional costs for both sharers and listeners? In their recent article at Character & Context Blog, German scholars Antje Rauers and Michaela Riediger from the University of Jena discuss this controversy.

People Tend to Share their Bad News with those Close to Them

For decades, scientists have tried to answer this question. Studies of intimate relationships provide a possible clue. Research shows that sharing stories about feelings can bring people closer together. As a result, perhaps the positive effects of sharing are not related to mood but rather to the quality of the relationships between people. Perhaps in times of crisis, the act of telling one another bad news strengthens our bonds with one another.

People usually share meaningful experiences with close friends or family members. To explore how and why they do this, Antje Rauers and Michaela Riediger designed a study with the goal of capturing social sharing as it happens in real life. Researchers asked 100 romantic couples over cell phones about their experiences as they went about their daily lives. During a period of three weeks, both partners recorded their current mood and how close they felt to their partner six times per day. Every time, partners also documented if they had any problems and whether they had shared with their partner their experience. Researchers were particularly interested in situations in which people had indeed just experienced a hassle. Then, they compared how people felt if they told their partner about these incidents with how they felt if they kept that bad experience to themselves.

What Did Researchers Find in Their Study?

Unsurprisingly, people felt worse following adversity than they did in the absence of such events.

Yet, researchers wanted to know if social sharing helped people emotionally recover from the hassles. Perhaps not necessarily. Some did not feel better after sharing, while some did. Some men and women also felt worse after hearing their partner’s story, whereas others did not. In other words, social sharing resulted in both emotional gains and losses for the couples.

Their sharing, however, significantly increased their relationship’s closeness. Both men and women experienced these benefits. And both the sharers and the receivers experienced these benefits. Researchers also examined how people in close relationships felt prior to sharing.

The main conclusion was that sharing did make people feel closer, no matter how close they had felt before. 

Social Sharing Affects Future Closeness in Relationships

Here is another question of interest. Are they fleeting experiences, or do they accumulate over time to increase closeness? How long do these increases in relationship closeness last?

According to the theory, social sharing generates virtuous cycles of mutual trust and even more sharing, which increase relationship closeness over time. Researchers asked the couples about their relationships 2.5 years later.

Results showed that those who had frequently shared their problems with their partners reported greater relationship closeness 2.5 years later. People who rarely shared with their partners, on the other hand, lost some of their closeness over time. Thus, the author’s findings suggest that social sharing can help to strengthen relationships both in the present and in the future. This psychological discovery explains why, despite the emotional costs, social sharing is so popular. Sharing bad news may not necessarily help to improve our mood, but it can aid in the formation of our close bonds.

Several Effective Flirtation Tactics in Norwegian and American Cultures

Flirting is the art of seducing a potential romantic or sexual partner through playful verbal and nonverbal exchanges. A variety of factors, such as the gender of a person, his or her attractiveness, personality traits, and situational context, contribute to the success of flirting. Flirtation techniques can be nonverbal, such as using smiles, posture, and eye contact to express interest. Verbal flirtation techniques are the art of saying a compliment to a person of interest. All these ways of interpersonal communication are often involved in the initiation stage of romantic or sexual relationships. Some men and women enjoy these flirtation tactics all the time. This can be called a “playful style of love.” (Karandashev, 2022).

The New Cross-Cultural Study of Flirtation

The question remains: what flirtation tactics are more effective than others? Let us look at some new research evidence recently published in the journal of Evolutionary Psychology. According to the study, laughing at other people’s jokes is an effective technique for both men and women. However, in other regards, these flirtation tactics can be different for men and women.

The purpose of this study was to evaluate the effectiveness of flirting in love relationships. The research question is whether these flirtation tactics are different for men and women.

The study was also interesting in terms of the effect of cultural contexts. The study was cross-cultural and compared perceptions of flirting among people living in Norway, a very gender egalitarian society, and people living in the United States of America, a more religious country. Researchers created four versions of the questionnaire:

  • a woman flirting with a man for short-term sex,
  • a woman flirting with a man for a long-term relationship,
  • a man flirting with a woman for short-term sex, and
  • a man flirting with a woman for a long-term relationship.

Participants filled out the questionnaires about their flirtation strategies, sociosexuality, extraversion, mate value, and religiosity.

The authors from Norwegian and American universities (Kennair et al., 2022) conducted the study among students in these two relatively different cultures. Two samples were used: one from Norway and one from the United States. Students at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology made up their sample group in Norway. The US sample was made up of college students in the Northeast who were in their first to fourth years.

This study advanced our understanding of gender differences in flirting strategies in two countries. Here is a summary of some key findings.

Gender Similarities in Flirting Tactics

In the context of long-term relationships, men and women employ largely similar flirting strategies. For instance, the study supported the role of humor in interpersonal attraction and perception of mate value. Both men and women can effectively flirt by laughing at each other’s jokes. Such responses to humor through laughing or giggling are equally effective flirtation tactics in both men’s and women’s behavior during conversation.

Gender Differences in Flirting Tactics

The findings of the study revealed gender differences in flirting tactics. Men and women differ in the flirtation tactics they use and perceive as effective.

On the one hand, when women dressed sexy, showed off their bodies, or used sexualized physical contact, men liked these flirting tactics in the context of short-term mating relationships.

On the other hand, when men appear generous, committed, and able to maintain intimate conversations and spend time together, women perceive these flirting tactics as effective in the context of long-term mating relationships. Both findings are in accord with the traditional evolutionary interpretation of the different mating preferences of men and women (see for review Karandashev, 2022).

Cultural Differences in Flirting Between Norwegians and Americans

The United States sample was more religious than the Norwegian sample. That reflected on their use of flirting tactics. Participants in the Norwegian sample were more open in their sociosexual orientation, showing a willingness to engage in casual and uncommitted sexual relationships.

Americans are better at flirting by being generous and looking for attention than Norwegians are.