If you want to be more generous, gratitude isn’t enough

Thinking of yourself as a giver can make you more likely to keep giving.
Thinking of yourself as a giver can make you more likely to keep giving.
Image: Reuters/Benoit Tessier
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Expressing gratitude is a November tradition. By giving thanks, we help others feel appreciated and remind ourselves of how fortunate we are.

But if we want to promote a spirit of generosity, we need to add another custom to the Thanksgiving repertoire.

Although gratitude is a powerful emotion, it’s also a fleeting one. Research shows that when we say thanks, we become motivated to pay back or forward what we’ve received. Then the emotion fades and the giving stops.

A few years ago, Jane Dutton and I asked people to donate a portion of their money to relief efforts for the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. The base rate of giving in a control group was 13%. When we randomly assigned a second group of people to list three things they had received from others, donations climbed to 21%.

Not bad… until we saw that a different exercise spiked the giving rate above 46%.

Instead of reflecting on what they had received, we asked a third group to write down three things that they had contributed to others. Now they saw themselves as givers, and here was a chance to earn that identity by helping victims of a natural disaster.

Gratitude is a temporary emotion. Giving is a lasting value.

In another experiment, we asked university fundraisers to keep a daily journal about what they had received from others or contributed to others. Over the next two weeks, the fundraisers who reflected on giving increased their total effort by 25%—and put in 13% more hourly effort than their colleagues who wrote about receiving. Having reminded themselves that they were the kinds of people who cared about others, they became invested in giving more.

According to a popular mantra, we should give without remembering and receive without forgetting. Our research suggests otherwise: we should take the time to remember both what we’ve given and what we’ve received.

So this Thanksgiving, don’t just count your blessings. Count your contributions too.