What you create with a generous act

John Tierney wrote a smart piece in the Sunday New York Times about the salubrious effects of gratitude. He write, “Cultivating an ‘attitude of gratitude’ has been linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others, including romantic partners.”

The far-reaching effects of gratitude make it sound like a wonder-pill that could be sold on QVC: “THIS simple book will describe the AMAZINGLY EASY STEPS that will help you sleep better, feel less anxious, will lower your blood pressure AND help your marriage!!”  I’m sure the first 1,000 of those would sell out in minutes.

On a more serious note, what I found intriguing was the omnidirectional impacts of gratitude: something as simple as keeping a gratitude journal (listing five things you’re grateful for, one sentence each) made people more optimistic and happier, and they “reported fewer physical problems and spent more time working out” (wow);  students who had been given help fixing a broken computer were more likely to volunteer to help a complete stranger with a task; writing an essay about gratitude made students less likely to retaliate when they received criticism.

This harkens back to the circular – as opposed to reciprocal – culture of gift-giving.  As Lewis Hyde explains in The Gift, there is strong cultural norm in many traditional societies in favor of gifts flowing in a circle.  In the Kula ceremonial exchange of the Massim people of Papua New Guinea, for example, “male” red shell necklaces worn by women move clockwise around the islands of New Guinea, and “female” armshells worn by men move counterclockwise around the island (sometimes traveling hundreds of miles before complete the circle).  Since you never give to a person who has given to you, and vice-versa, the notion of group membership is reinforced and the undertow of reciprocal obligation is kept at bay (e.g. “I’ll buy a table at your benefit dinner if you buy one at mine.”)

With this perspective, we can deepen our understanding of what happens when one engages in an act of generosity.  In the narrowest sense, someone is helped.  Broadening a little, the giver, especially if she is conscious of and reflective about her actions, will, over time, be transformed through the repeated act of giving.  Most interesting – seen through the prism of the research on gratitude – engaging in a generous act creates a chain reaction of ongoing good action and good feeling: another generous act done by the person to whom you were generous; an increase in well-being; less likelihood of retaliation when that person is wronged…and on and on we go.

This is what’s really going on when we act generously.  The person to whom we are being generous, whoever she is, is not some sort of passive, faceless “recipient,” and the power of that generous act does not dead-end with the her.  It ripples out.  It spreads into her lives and into the lives of others.

And so what we know intuitively is supported by the research: if we can get a big enough number of people to make generosity integral to how they move through the world, the shift that begins with them will multiply.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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