The Virtuous Spiral of Giving and Gratitude

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When Sir John Templeton set out to fulfill his philanthropic vision, he opened the door not only to the science behind giving and gratitude as distinct virtues, but also to the cyclic relationship between the two. “Thanksgiving leads to giving, and to spiritual growth,” he pointedly wrote in Wisdom from World Religions. This innate connection between giving and gratitude, now substantiated in individual testimonies and academic research, is examined in a new book, The Giving Way to Happiness: Stories and Science Behind the Life-Changing Power of Giving, written by Jenny Santi, a philanthropy advisor to wealthy individuals and celebrities. After years of having daily contact with major philanthropists, award-winning social entrepreneurs, changemakers, and various givers—young and old, and from all different walks of life—Santi decided to collect their stories about how giving changed their lives. She then reflected on these stories alongside the growing body of science—much of which has been the result of funding from the John Templeton Foundation.

Sir John called it one of the essential worldwide Laws of Life: “As you become a good steward of the abundance that is yours right now, an increasing attitude of gratitude will bring greater blessings to you and, then through you, to our world.” The science behind giving backs up this insight. In her book, Santi reflects upon research examined by Stephen Post, professor of preventive medicine at Stony Brook University and a Foundation grantee. The findings suggest that for volunteers—who might be defined as individuals who want to give back—what they receive in return is almost invaluable. Two-thirds of individuals who volunteer, out of a large American sample, agreed that it had made them feel physically healthier. They also linked their giving to sleeping better and improving personal relationships. “There is a caveat in that we need to balance our lives and should know our limitations when giving of our time and self to others, as overdoing may affect us negatively,” Post says. “The right ‘dose’ of good will varies from person to person and there is no detailed prescription for everyone, but the principle can at least be established scientifically. If you could create a pill with the same results, it would be a best seller overnight,” he adds.

Gratitude plays another part in the cycle of giving. As Sir John wrote, “The law of giving and receiving also asks us to be good receivers. It is also important to be able to receive the gifts of others in a gracious way, to say, ‘Thank you, I accept your thoughtful gift.'” Further, the giver gains from accepting that gratitude, too.

Accepting the gratitude of those to whom you have given can be interpreted as compromising the value of giving. After all, is it not better to give anonymously? Santi, though, stresses that being able to accept gratitude is crucial if giving is to become a way of life that leads to fulfillment. She cites research which shows that, on the whole, the happier giver is the one who lets his or her identity be known. “I don’t believe in giving until it hurts; rather, I believe in giving until it feels great,” Santi explains.

There is a fascinating developmental dynamic in this which the science is revealing. A recent article published by the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC), supported by the Foundation, discusses new research which links giving to how individuals are raised. In short, children who grow up feeling they can turn to their parents and care-givers for emotional support are more likely to give to charities when they become adults. Conversely, those who are less securely attached when young are less likely to do so later on.

The explanation draws on attachment theory, the psychological research which relates our early experience of relationships to those that develop later. It seems that those with poorer experiences of connection in infancy avoid giving because they have internalized the idea that becoming empathically involved with others, as giving involves, is costly. In other words, an internalized gratitude for what has been received early in life leads to a developed capacity for giving as an adult. As Sir John noted, there is a French proverb that reminds us, “Gratitude is the heart’s memory.”

Perhaps this should come as no surprise since evolutionary theory is also lending its weight to the links between giving and gratitude, according to Dacher Keltner, psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and founding faculty director of the GGSC. He has called it “survival of the kindest.” He notes, “Because of our very vulnerable offspring, the fundamental task for human survival and gene replication is to take care of others. Human beings have survived as a species because we have evolved the capacities to care for those in need and to cooperate. As Darwin long ago surmised, sympathy is our strongest instinct.” And sympathy is a key dynamic in the benevolence involved in giving and gratitude.

Santi is optimistic about the future of giving. She believes that we have entered a time in which it is seen as desirable. “Making an impact” is now a key requirement for job-seeking students. “They are passionate about social causes, brimming with new ideas to solve problems, are equipped with the digital networks to do so, and want to use all these to make a difference,” she continues. “We have entered an era where it’s cool to give. Social entrepreneurship has exploded in the last ten years, and is now a track offered at more than 30 business schools.”

In fact, giving can be quite contagious: further research suggests that when one person behaves generously, it inspires others to behave generously, too, this creating a network effect. “The key is to find the approach that fits you,” Santi concludes. “When you do, then the more you give, the more you stand to get back. If you give from an authentic place, you get more than you give, and you’ll keep on giving because you know it feels great.”