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What We Know About Gratitude And Giving Back

New research explains how gratitude helps society as a whole

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Source: 123RF Stock Photo

There is no question that gratitude is good for you. There is significant scientific literature showing that people who feel gratitude are less likely to be depressed and worried, and more likely to feel satisfied with their lives.

In recent years, social science researchers have hypothesized that gratitude is good for society as a whole, as well. Researchers from the University of Nottingham in England set out to answer the question, Are people who practice gratitude more likely to help others, share, volunteer and donate?

Their findings are published in the June issue of Psychological Bulletin. They began by searching the scientific literature for quantitative studies that measured the relationship between gratitude and prosociality, or behaviors that help others. In total, they found 91 studies with more than 18,000 participants. Then the researchers analyzed data from all of the studies to draw some conclusions about gratitude and positive behaviors.

Here’s what they found:

  • There is a clear and significant link between gratitude and behaviors that help society as a whole.
  • The kind of gratitude people practice or feel influences how much they give back. Individuals with a broader outlook of gratitude – who are more likely to notice and appreciate the positive in the world – are more likely to engage in behaviors that help others compared with those who feel gratitude as a temporary emotion that passes. (Those with the broader outlook also experience greater protections from psychological stress.) In addition, people whose gratitude is triggered by a specific action by another person – for example, I am grateful my husband cooked dinner tonight – were also more likely to give back compared to those who expressed their gratitude more generally.
  • Gratitude is a key ingredient in the social rules of reciprocity, which essential means that feeling grateful helps people“give back” what they have received. This was true for all forms of “giving back,” but especially true for those in close social relationships. For example, people may feel compelled to care for their aging parents because their parents cared for them as infants.
  • When looking at a broad range of feelings and emotions, gratitude had the largest effect on peoples’ willingness to “give back” – more than sadness, happiness, empathy, shame and anger.

What does all of this mean? Research shows that gratitude is part of the psychological foundation that prompts us to “give back” in many ways. It encourages us to return favors to our friends, neighbors and family members. And gratitude inspires us to help others in society as a whole.

But it’s not clear how much gratitude is required to inspire giving back, explained Anthony Ong, a psychologist at Cornell University.

“It remains to be seen what is the optimal level of gratitude or how frequently and intensely gratitude exercises, such as counting blessings and making ‘thank you notes’ should be undertaken to bolster prosociality,” he said.

“Along the same lines, it will be important for future research to explore whether the relation between gratitude and prosociality is nonlinear; that is, more gratitude may not always be better and may turn out to have well-being costs to the individual when experienced at high levels.”

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