The gift that keeps on giving

In her new column, the Korn Ferry Institute’s Amelia Haynes explores the meaning of gratitude and its power to deepen—and widen—our communities.

By: Amelia Haynes, Associate Researcher, Korn Ferry Institute

Do you know that feeling you get when a stranger holds the door for you? Or when your partner surprises you with a gift? Or when your coworker offers to take something off your plate during a busy week?

From these experiences, we know gratitude as that warm fuzzy feeling we get when we reflect on something or someone we appreciate. Scientists, who have looked at gratitude a little more closely, define it much in the same way, but with a bit more specificity. In concrete terms, gratitude is the feeling a person gets when they receive something, like a gift or a benefit. The feeling is often directed at the source of the gift, and the gift is not necessarily deserved or earned. Explaining gratitude in these terms can make the feeling seem stale and uninspired, but under this cool scientific exterior is actually a rich history of warmth and camaraderie—and a lot of what we think of as the unique humanity of human beings.

Some sociologists suggest that gratitude is the foundation that sustains reciprocal relationships—the kind that make communal living and functioning societies possible. Formal structures like laws and social constructs are important backstops, but social emotions like gratitude are the threads that hold the fabric of our intertwined existence together, and prompt reciprocity in human interactions. Sociologist Georg Simmel called gratitude “the moral memory of mankind” and believed that, in the absence of grateful actions, society as we know it would crumble. Without the social emotions pushing us toward reciprocity, people would necessarily become more selfish and more insulated.

Simmel’s hypothesis has since been investigated by scientists, who have shown that gratitude, in fact, makes it less likely that people will engage in destructive interpersonal behaviors and materialistic values, and more likely that they will experience positive affect, lower levels of stress, and improved wellbeing. But, as he suspected, it isn’t just that gratitude makes us feel good, but it can also motivate costly prosocial behaviors. That is, gratitude encourages people to act and behave in ways that might otherwise be of no advantage—or even disadvantage—to themselves. People who experience gratitude are more likely to provide emotional support to others and help them with personal problems.

Generally, gratitude leads to an increase in prosocial behaviors. In fact, research shows that gratitude activates the parts of the brain related to moral cognition, social reward, perspective-taking, and theory of mind. At a cognitive level, gratitude involves putting ourselves in another person’s shoes to understand their intentions—something we know is likely to boost cooperation, coordination, and relationship building. These studies highlight the relationship between gratitude as it relates to giving and receiving, and the role of empathy, positive emotions, and social reward—which, at the behavioral and neurological levels, reinforce our social bonds. It takes us from “me” to “we” and expands our circles to include others in “us.” Gratitude expands our line of sight to account for our shared humanity.

As much as gratitude is woven into our social fabric, it doesn’t occur by default. A number of cognitive patterns and behaviors can get in the way of gratitude and the many benefits that come with it. For example, an inability to admit one’s shortcomings, a mindset of entitlement and deservingness, and the inability to recognize that contributions of others to our lives and wellbeing, are all behaviors that can crowd out gratitude.

Gratitude is perhaps best conceptualized as being made up of three parts. First, it is a warm sense of appreciation for someone or something. Second, it is the sense of goodwill towards that person or thing. And third—perhaps most importantly—it is the tendency to act that comes from that appreciation and goodwill.

This is the part that distinguishes gratitude from other emotions. Gratitude, really, is about giving back. In that, we find that the value of gratitude is not only in the reflection of the gift received, but that it in itself is a gift given.