How gratitude made me a better giver

How gratitude made me a better giver

Recipients express gratitude for bags of rice delivered to the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. International relief efforts successfully delivered 79,000 pounds of rice to eight villages in the Philippines.

I used to think about gratitude as an emotion felt by the person who receives, and not so much as a feeling experienced by those who give. In this view, charitable giving is a one-way transaction, in which the giver gives up something of value in order to help someone else. This view of altruism used to make me feel that giving to others was a zero-sum game, a praiseworthy decision to go against our natural, selfish inclination to keep our money, time, or possessions to ourselves.

But recent research in the field of positive psychology has shown that the opposite might be the case. In fact, cultivating feelings of gratitude and generosity can have a profound effect on the mental and physical wellbeing of those who give. Research at the University of Michigan has shown that people who donate their time doing volunteer work experience reduced stress, an enhanced sense of purpose, and even greater longevity.

Counting our blessings has also been demonstrated to bring significant benefits. For example, the psychologist Martin Seligman has shown that simple exercises designed to cultivate gratitude, such as writing letters of thanks to people who have helped or given to us or keeping a ‘gratitude journal’ can reduce anxiety and depression, promote kindness, and have a long-term effect on our satisfaction with our lives.

Did you know that studies have shown that around 40% of our happiness level is determined by behaviors that we can control? These activities include giving time and money to help those living in extreme poverty.

Thinking about giving in terms of how our altruism makes us happier and more grateful may seem self-centered, as it focuses on how we feel rather than on how we can share our resources with others. The truth is that cultivating feelings of gratitude and generosity can make us see our lives from a more social perspective, and can lead us to a renewed appreciation of what we owe to others and what we can do for them.

A simple exercise for cultivating gratitude

For me, actively trying to cultivate my own sense of gratitude has made me a more generous and effective giver.

Cultivating and expressing gratitude for what I have helps me better imagine how my own small contribution to our global community might impact people who live very different lives from my own. For me, visualizing the joy of a woman in Kenya who received cash for a water pump, or of a third grader in Vietnam who regained her sight after a cataract surgery, helps boost my commitment to support organizations that create life-changing opportunities for individuals in developing countries. Knowing that we can make a difference with a donation as small as $50—the cost of a cataract surgery—can inspire us with gratitude for the opportunity to help others and affirm our decision to set aside a part of our income for charitable donations.  

A Kenyan woman supplies her family with fresh water using a water pump that she purchased with a direct cash transfer from GiveDirectly. She dug a 30-foot hole in the ground in order to properly install the pump.

Peter Singer rightly cautions against giving to the most “heartwarming” causes rather than to the most effective ones, but cultivating emotions such as gratitude and generosity can help effective altruists motivate themselves and others to give more—and more joyfully. This is a topic that my fellow blogger Brad Hurley writes about in a previous post.

Gratitude and effective giving

Cultivating gratitude for what I have helps me spend my money where it can be used most effectively. In fact, Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone have argued that gratitude can act as an “antidote to consumerism.” By focusing our attention on what we already have and on how much satisfaction we derive from the simple joys of our everyday lives, gratitude can help us resist the urge to seek happiness in a newer car, more stylish clothes, or more expensive wines. As such, cultivating feelings of gratitude and generosity is not just an ego-trip, but can open up a different way of looking at our lives and an opportunity to reconnect with our values and with the billions of people with whom we share this planet.

I owe a great deal of my wellbeing to others. So much of my happiness is intertwined with that of my family, my friends, and my community. I realize that success is never just my own achievement, but often rests on sheer luck. My wellbeing in this globalized economy depends on the efforts of countless others, including millions of disadvantaged workers around the world who grow our food, sew our clothes, and assemble our electronics. Sometimes I reflect on the sheer contingency of my own luck at having been born in Belgium, and having the opportunity to live and work for many years in the United States. Those like myself who live in affluent countries are in a position to do something powerful—and effective—to better the lives of those born with less resources and money than us.

Inspired to make a difference in the lives of those who live with less than you do? Learn more about how you can give back effectively here.

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About the author:

Bart Van Wassenhove

Bart Van Wassenhove is a PhD candidate in Classics at the University of Chicago and runs a professional development program for doctoral students. He is passionate about fighting global poverty and creating opportunity, and believes that even the smallest gifts can make a big difference.

The views expressed in blog posts are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Peter Singer or The Life You Can Save.