"The hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings"—Eric Hoffer
One of the songs I learned early in life at Sunday School was “Count Your Blessings.” Research, such as the work of Dr. Robert Emmons documented in Thanks – How the New Science Can Make You Happier shows that doing so makes us happier. But more recent research suggests that in addition to counting our blessings, we should count our generosity.
Researchers Adam Grant of the University of Pennsylvania and Jane Dutton at the University of Michigan recently published their research studies which demonstrate that thinking about times when we have given to others is more effective in promoting generosity than counting our blessings.
In their first experiment, Grant and Dutton studied fundraisers whose job was to solicit alumni donations to support various programs at a university. The researchers randomly split the fundraisers into two groups. One group wrote journal entries about recent experiences of feeling grateful for receiving a benefit. The second group wrote journal entries about recent experiences in which they made a contribution which enabled other people to feel grateful.
The researchers then measured how many calls each fundraiser made in the two weeks before and the two weeks after the week that they spent journaling. The fundraisers who wrote about giving increased their hourly calls by more than 29% in the following two weeks. The fundraisers who wrote about receiving, however, showed no change in the number of hourly calls made.
In a second experiment, Grant and Dutton randomly assigned college students to one of three groups, requiring them to list three ways they had recently given help, list three ways they had recently received help, or list three different foods they had eaten in the last week.
When the participants came a few weeks later to pick up their payment for participating in the study, they were given a form describing the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. On the form, the participants were asked whether they would like to donate any portion of their $5 payment to an earthquake relief fund.
Overall, 26% of the participants donated some amount of money. Similar to the results of the first experiment, participants who reflected on giving were significantly more likely to donate (46.15%) than those in either the beneficiary (21.43%) or control condition (13.33%).
Self-reflection about giving can be a powerful tool for motivating generosity and volunteerism. If we want to encourage others to serve and assist others, it may be worthwhile to encourage them to reflect about what they have previously given to others—not just what they have received from others.
"Remembrance is the seed of gratitude, which is the seed of generosity"—Henry B. Eyring