Before all the leftover turkey has been consumed, Americans start their frenzied shopping for Christmas. Millions wake up before the sun to snag Black Friday deals, and there’s always Cyber Monday for the late sleepers.
A group at the 92nd Street Y in New York City was uncomfortable with all this consumerism, and wanted to create a new post-Thanksgiving tradition: Giving Tuesday. Starting in 2012, people were urged to give money rather than spend it on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, and the concept caught on. Last year, charities collected more than $50 million in donations on that single day.
Giving Tuesday is onto something—in more ways than one. In fact, giving may be one solution to the difficulties some people have with expressing gratitude on Thanksgiving. Encouraging giving—helping others, performing acts of kindness, practicing generosity—can help spread gratitude in our society beyond just urging people to feel grateful on one day of the year. That’s because gratitude and generosity are part of a cycle.
It’s no surprise that generosity can inspire gratitude. For example, romantic partners who received thoughtful benefits from each other not only felt more gratitude but also more relationship satisfaction and connection the following day. One study found that sorority sisters who received gifts from their Big Sisters felt more gratitude as a function of how thoughtful they judged the gifts to be.
But what’s less obvious is how gratitude can inspire generosity. Grateful people have been shown to be more helpful, kind, supportive, and altruistic. In one 2006 study, grateful-feeling participants were more willing to help someone out by taking a boring survey than participants who weren’t feeling grateful. In another study, people who kept a gratitude journal offered more help and emotional support to others than people who wrote about hassles or neutral events. The Templeton Giving Survey, released just this week, found that people who think about gratitude daily donate more money and volunteer more hours per year. (The survey was funded by the John Templeton Foundation, which also funds the GGSC’s Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude project.)
“Gratitude is more than a pleasant feeling; it is also motivating,” pioneering gratitude researcher Robert Emmons explains in his article “Pay It Forward.” “Gratitude serves as a key link between receiving and giving: It moves recipients to share and increase the very good they have received.”
Emmons quotes a woman who received a life-saving heart transplant:
“I have a desire to do something in return. To do thanks. To give thanks. Give things. Give thoughts. Give love. So gratitude becomes the gift, creating a cycle of giving and receiving, the endless waterfall. Filling up and spilling over… perhaps not even to the giver but to someone else, to whoever crosses one’s path. It is the simple passing on of the gift.”
According to relationship researcher Amie Gordon, this “cycle of generosity” also exists in romantic relationships. When we feel more grateful, we are more thoughtful, responsive, caring, and attentive toward our partners. Our partner in turn feels appreciated and grateful, and the cycle continues.
The link is evident as early as childhood. Early adolescents who are more grateful become more socially integrated, or connected to their communities and motivated to help them. Gratitude and generosity go hand in hand in young people with a strong sense of purpose, reports William Damon, who surveyed over 1,200 people ages 12-26. In his book The Path to Purpose, he writes:
“The sense of gratitude for being able to partake in what the world has to offer, and to have a chance to make one’s own contribution, was common among all [the] highly purposeful. From gratitude springs not only an enhanced appreciation for our own blessings but also a desire to pass such blessings along to others—the heart and soul of purpose.”
Evolutionary theorists suggest that gratitude and generosity have long been intertwined. Gratitude could have facilitated the process of reciprocal altruism, whereby one person’s generous behavior inspires the other to act in kind. Our ancestors who participated in this cycle of gratitude and generosity were more likely to survive, the theory goes.
The traditional Thanksgiving celebrations encourage us to enter the cycle at the gratitude stage, but perhaps we could enter it at the generosity stage, too. In other words, promoting giving around Thanksgiving is another way to boost the level of gratitude in society.
What would a generosity-infused Thanksgiving look like? Here are some suggestions:
1. Perform acts of Thanksgiving kindness
On our annual day of gratitude, there are ample opportunities for giving. You might think of friends who have no family to visit, and invite them to join your celebrations. You might donate your leftovers to those who would desperately appreciate them (rather than hearing “Turkey again?” from your long-suffering family). Or maybe just bake your husband’s favorite pumpkin pie for dessert.
Incidentally, kindness is already a small part of our Thanksgiving rituals in the ceremonial presidential pardoning of a turkey. If turkeys could communicate with us, we would most certainly hear some genuine and spontaneous clucks of gratitude!
2. Encourage kindness in kids now—and throughout the year
Performing acts of Thanksgiving kindness yourself—in other words, modeling kind behavior—is one of four research-backed ways to encourage kindness in kids.
Raising kind kids also means being careful with the way you praise and criticize them. Praising their character (“You’re such a helpful friend”) but criticizing their actions (“That wasn’t a very considerate thing to do”) will help kids see themselves as good and capable of improvement. Counterintuitively, offering kids material rewards for kind behavior may backfire because they become motivated by the rewards, not the warm glow of kindness itself.
This approach coincides with the gentle way sociologist Christine Carter believes parents can inspire gratitude in their children. She writes, “We are simply trying to elicit a positive emotion—feelings of appreciation—just like we might try to elicit a smile from a baby. This means not insisting kids feel grateful, and certainly not telling them what they should feel grateful for; instead, it’s about creating an environment and situation where the feelings can naturally arise.”
3. Donate to the right charities (for you)
When Giving Tuesday rolls around, you’ll surely be bombarded with requests for donations. The charity you choose could have an impact on how you feel afterward—and whether you decide to donate next year.
Research suggests that the most effective giving is founded on a human connection, so make sure to do your research and find a platform (such as DonorsChoose.org) that provides lots of detail on the people you’ll be helping. Favor charities where you can see the impact of your giving; that means knowing what your money will be used for—for example, new classroom supplies or a cooking stove—and actually being able to communicate with recipients. Finally, donate because you choose to, not because you feel pressured to, and everyone will be better off.
It takes a while to develop a deep sense of gratefulness, a profound appreciation for all the positives that come our way, a belief that everything in life is a gift. In a perfect world, we would all be this grateful—and at Thanksgiving, we could sit down and the thankfulness would flow forth genuinely and profusely. But many of us aren’t there yet, and focusing on generosity can be a different way to increase gratitude in the world this Thanksgiving.
In other words, emphasize the giving, and the thanks will follow.