When most of us say thank you, we should be much more specific. That advice comes from Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., science director at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center. That's why she recommends what she calls "Gratitude 1-2-3," a way of thanking people that takes just a little extra time and effort, but can provide huge benefits to both you and them.

When one of your team members does a really good job, or someone does you a favor, how do you thank you? "Thanks, that was great!" "Thanks a million!" Or just, "Thanks!" Does that sound about right?

There's nothing particularly wrong with that. But you're missing the opportunity to provide a much more effective and meaningful expression of gratitude, Simon-Thomas explained in a radio interview with David B. Feldman, Ph.D., a professor of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University. "We know empirically that if you are more grateful as a person, you do better," she said. "Your physical health is better, your mental health is better, you're more resilient to stress." Grateful people are more apt to learn and grow from difficult experiences, she added. 

With that in mind, Simon-Thomas recommends having a gratitude practice. And while for many people that might mean something like writing in a gratitude journal or starting the day by thinking of something you're grateful for, in these days of social distancing, she recommends a gratitude practice that will help strengthen your bonds with the people you interact with. That's why she prefers Gratitude 1-2-3, which is simple and quick and will benefit others as well as yourself. Here's how it works.

1. Be specific about what you're saying thank you for

Simon-Thomas says most people are pretty good at expressing gratitude to others. "What we're bad at is expressing our gratitude with enough specificity to really reap the benefits of the felt experience ourselves, and to draw out the strongest response from the person we're saying thank you to," she explained.

To get the most out of a thank-you, begin by saying specifically what you are thanking the other person for. Since she was speaking on Feldman's radio show, she used that as an example. "Instead of just saying, 'Hey, thanks, Dave, that was great,' I can say, 'Dave, thank you for inviting me to be on the show with you.'" That puts you and the person you're thanking into what she calls a "shared mental space," both of you considering the nice thing that person did.

2. Acknowledge the effort involved

Make it clear that you're aware of the effort others have made to help you out. For example, Simon-Thomas might tell Feldman, "I know you have a long list of really wonderful guests that you could have invited, and you probably had to look around for my email and try to figure out where I am." That acknowledgement can make the other person feel understood and validated.

3. Describe how it benefits you

This is an important step, because it's the only part of Gratitude 1-2-3 that the other person won't already know. Still using the radio show as an example, Simon-Thomas said, "I feel like what I do and how I focus my career has some degree of importance because it's worthy of being invited to be on this live show that you do." 

Ever since I first read about Gratitude 1-2-3 in a post Feldman wrote for Psychology Today, I've been trying to practice it myself. So when my researcher took on the particularly onerous task of sorting through hundreds of email messages for me, I specifically thanked her for dealing with all those emails and added that, because of their large number, it was particularly great for me to have some help with them. It felt a bit more meaningful to me than my usual "Thanks so much!" and I'm hoping it did to her, too.

It won't take as long as you think

Gratitude 1-2-3 may sound like it takes up a lot of time, but it doesn't have to. "If you start practicing it, you can get through it in 15 or 16 seconds," Simon-Thomas said. Thinking about it, I can see how that's true, and might even work with, say, a barista. "Thanks for making my coffee and making it so delicious. It will help me stay energized for the rest of the afternoon," the customer could say.

Compared with the small effort involved, the benefits of Gratitude 1-2-3 are huge, Simon-Thomas said. "Let's get in the habit of this specific and effective expression of gratitude to one another," she added. That sounds like a great idea to me.