The season to pause and give thanks is at hand. As we prepare to gather around hearth and table, some may hold a resigned sense that though they’ll go through the motions and say the right things — the things you’re supposed to say at Thanksgiving — they might not truly feel gratitude in their hearts. It’s like saying “I’m happy for you” to someone who just got the job you wanted. The words and the feelings just don’t match.
This disconnect is unfortunate. It comes from a somewhat misguided view that gratitude is all about looking backward — back to what has already been. But in reality, that's not how gratitude truly works. At a functional level, it's not about passive reflection; it's about building resilience. It's not about being thankful for things that have already occurred and, thus, can't be changed; it's about ensuring the benefits of what comes next. It's about making sure that tomorrow, and the day after, you will have something to be grateful for.
One of the central findings to emerge from psychological science over the past decade is that certain human emotions serve socially adaptive functions. When we experience emotions like compassion, admiration, and shame, they drive us to alter our behaviors toward others. As Adam Smith intuited long ago, these innate feelings, or moral sentiments, impel us to act in ways that benefit our fellow humans — to engage with them in behaviors that foster the common good. And in the case of gratitude, the evidence couldn't be more clear or timely. In the face of disaster, few psychological mechanisms can do more to benefit an individual's or a society's ability to thrive.
Much research, including from my own lab, confirms that gratitude toward someone for past assistance increases the odds that we'll return the favor and help a benefactor in need. That's fine, but in the case of challenges that face many people this year, pairing previous benefactors and recipients isn't an easy or efficient process. There are lots of people — those still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, for example — who need help immediately. What is needed to recover rapidly are mechanisms that make people help others they don't know well — mechanisms that pay it forward to strangers.
This is where the power of gratitude really resides. Its benefits come from an ability to create cooperation and support out of thin air. In my lab, we've shown this using a simple framework. We stage events where individuals experience a problem and then have someone come to their aid just when it looked as if all hope were lost. The result? Lots of gratitude toward the fixer. But that's not the interesting part. It's what happens next that is the surprise. When these newly grateful souls ran into strangers who asked for help, they not only more readily agreed to aid them than did individuals who weren't feeling grateful, but also expended a lot more effort in the act of helping itself. The more gratitude people feel, the more likely it is they'll help anyone, even if it's someone they've never laid eyes on before.
These benefits aren't limited to direct face-to-face encounters. Given the option, grateful people will make financial decisions that "lift all boats" even when offered options to increase their own profit at another's expense. In these times, where the click of a button can move funds to anywhere in the world where they're needed, gratitude-induced giving can have a powerful effect.
Such occurrences of indirect reciprocity — the extending of help to new people — is known to kick cooperation in a group into high gear. In the face of individual or societal tragedies, then, any phenomenon that can enhance such indiscriminate paying-it-forward stands as a key to resilience.
As you sit to give thanks this holiday, don't let it ring hollow. Embrace the gratitude; feel it as deeply as you can, because in so doing, you're actually increasing the odds that a year from now, we'll all have more for which to be grateful. On the deepest, unconscious level, gratitude is really about being grateful for the actions that are yet to come.
David DeSteno is professor of psychology at Northeastern University.