The Science of Willpower

Secrets for self-control without suffering

What’s Better Than Gratitude?

A recent study might inspire you to try a new ritual this Thanksgiving.

Somewhere between mashing the potatoes and dishing out the pie, millions of Americans will take time to reflect on what they are grateful for.

The benefits of such reflection are many: gratitude improves mood, helps us feel closer to others, and lets us focus on the big picture.

But a recent study published in Psychological Science suggests a different practice -- one you might consider making a new Thanksgiving tradition. After you ask yourself, “What am I grateful for?”, consider asking “What have I done recently that others might be grateful for?”

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan conducted two studies to compare the effects of these gratitude reflections on prosocial behavior. They wondered: Are people more likely to “pay it forward” after remembering what they have received from others, or savoring what they have done for others?

In the first study, participants were randomly assigned to write about one of these two topics for 15 mins a day, for four consecutive days. Researchers then gave participants an opportunity to volunteer for a good cause. Participants who had written about how they had helped others (the “benefactor” reflection) donated significantly more time than participants who had written about how they had been helped (the “beneficiary” reflection).

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In the second study, participants were randomly assigned to list three times they had been the recipient of help or support over the last few weeks, and how they had benefitted from this; or three  times they had given help or support in the last few weeks, and how the recipient benefitted.

Researchers then gave participants the opportunity to donate part of their payment for participating in the study. Participants who had listed three  times they had helped others were more than twice as likely to donate to tsunami and earthquake victims than participants who had listed three times they had received support -- 46% vs 21%.

These studies made me think of two very different areas of research. Moral licensing research suggests that remembering your own good behavior may actually let yourself “off the hook” for future good deeds – exactly the opposite of what this study found.

And yet the findings are consistent with research on the benefits of acknowledging your own values, and reflecting on how you live them. According to self-affirmation theory, the “benefactor” reflection might have helped participants appreciate the part of themselves that enjoys, and finds meaning in, helping others. When an opportunity presented itself to act on this value, they took it. When we remember the things that bring meaning to our lives, we don't tend to fall in to the moral licesning trap. (This is why it's also a good idea to define your goals in terms of values; it helps you stay motivated in the face of both progress and setbacks.)

This year, I’m going to turn this study in to a Thanksgiving experiment, and make the benefactor reflection a part of our dinner table gratitude ritual. I encourage you to try it to too -- and let me know if you find it a valuable way to connect to yourself, and those sharing the holiday with you.

Study cited:

Grant A & Dutton J (2012). Beneficiary of benefactor: Are people more prosocial when they reflect on receiving or giving? Psychological Science 23(9), 1033-39.

Kelly McGonigal is a psychologist at Stanford University. Her latest book is The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. She is also the author of The Neuroscience of Change and Yoga for Pain Relief.

Follow Kelly on Twitter: http://twitter.com/kellymcgonigal or on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/kellymcgonigalauthor

Home page image: courtesy of creative commons license.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is a health psychologist at Stanford University.

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