Gratitude And Paying It Forward

Today’s post is about making the world a better place.

I’ve always believed that showing gratitude is one of the best things we can do for our emotional health and happiness.

If that weren’t enough, it appears that individuals with a high disposition to gratitude are more likely to help others after being helped. If we want to be good people, cultivating gratitude will make us more likely to help other people out…cool!

Since both showing gratitude and helping others are so beneficial to our own happiness, building this disposition to gratitude is like killing two birds with one stone.

The meaning of gratitude for today’s purposes is a positive emotion experienced when one perceives another person’s intentional generosity toward them.

In this study by Chang et al., a phenomenon called upstream reciprocity (UR) is examined.

Upstream reciprocity is the tendency of those who have been helped and who have high gratitude to be more likely to “pay it forward”, or assist another person.

A proposed mechanism for UR is that gratitude tends to broaden perspective by diminishing an individual’s inclination to distinguish self-related from unrelated others.

They don’t think: “Some specific person helped me out so I should return the favor, but other people didn’t help me out so I need not do anything for them”.

Therefore, an individual with a high propensity towards gratitude is likely to act in a similarly helpful way both to their benefactor AND to others.

This study used social network analysis to help measure UR.

Eighteen groups of 8-11 students without prior interaction with each other were used as the networks.

At the end of the term, a questionnaire to determine disposition to gratitude was administered, and each student was asked about what help they received from each individual in their group over the semester.

In this way, the social network could be constructed without self-reporting bias, which would exist if the students were asked to report what help they provided to others.

The result: “Individuals’ gratitude was not only related to their tendency to assist others that they directly met, but that it might also place individuals in the niches of initiating and mediating in the larger scale circulation of goodwill.”

It is important to distinguish between the emotions of gratitude and indebtedness.

While they both can occur after having received a favor, indebtedness tends to cause more differentiation between self-related and unrelated, and thus while the individual may repay their benefactor, they are unlikely to pay it forward.

Therefore, we should be careful to cultivate gratitude and NOT feelings of indebtedness, though the two can be easily confused.

Gratitude has the effect of improving a person’s quality of life. This study described several mechanisms by which this can happen.

First, a higher disposition toward gratitude improves ones emotional support. They interpret more events positively, and thus live a higher percentage of their life in positive emotional states.

Second, more gratitude increases one’s social connections through UR. Therefore, it is evolutionarily beneficial to have a high disposition for gratitude.

That being said, many of us often forget to express it.

Believe me, I have a lot more to say about gratitude. Let this be a rallying cry to be sincerely thank people who do nice things for you.

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