Thoughts for Thanksgiving: Greed, Generosity, and Gratitude

Posted on Wed, Nov 27, 2013 @ 12:27 PM

Thanksgiving2013It's that time of year again, when gratitude becomes a topic of conversation all around us. Canada and the United States are not the only nations to pause in gratitude at some point during the fall season, and as it turns out, this is such a healthy activity that we might want to engage in it far more often than many of us do.

Studies highlighting the importance of gratitude and giving to personal well-being are piling up like autumn leaves, and they're hinting at some interesting connections.

When we express gratitude, say researchers, we experience fewer symptoms of physical illness; we exercise more; we sleep longer and better and report higher levels of positive emotion, greater optimism and a greater sense of connection to others. This sets off more than one beneficial cycle. For instance, improved sleep quality is not only a result of gratitude, but also a predecessor: as we sleep better we actually increase our capacity for gratitude. As our capacity for gratitude increases, we begin to focus more on our positive experiences than on our hassles and complaints. We're also more likely to help others with their personal problems and offer emotional support, thereby evoking feelings of gratitude in those we touch. 

Gratitude spreads, and so does generosity. People who receive benefits in "pay-it-forward" situations give to others more generously than in situations where they can just give whatever they want, say some studies. On the flip side, of course, greed is also paid forward. Unfortunately, the research tells us, the pay-it-forward effect of greed is even stronger than the pay-it-forward effect of gratitude and giving.

If only greed and competition could offer the same benefits to mental and physical health. Something that spreads its seeds as far and fast as greed should at least have something worthwhile to offer.

Those who think primarily in economic terms often suggest it does, of course. Remember Gordon Gekko's speech in the 1987 film Wall Street? His point of view would coincide with some economists and anthropologists who have long assumed that people make decisions in far more "cost-effective" ways than they may do in actual fact. Whole economic theories are based on the belief that people choose their behaviors through a sort of situational cost-benefit analysis. Yet psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics as a result of his research in judgment and decision making. What he found is that human beings (and that includes you and me) are not the rational agents economists and decision theorists have traditionally assumed. We are ruled by emotion at least as often as we are ruled by logical economy. Most often, we decide using a mixture of emotion and logic.

This opens the door to the idea that sometimes we make decisions, not on a cost-benefit basis, but on the basis of altruism, empathy, gratitude, generosity. Admittedly, we reap mental and physical health benefits when we decide to give rather than receive, or be thankful rather than judgmental and critical. But these benefits don't always look great on paper. Good health, happiness, rich relationships and a good night's sleep are hard to quantify. They are, however, some of the things that make life worth living. 

With this in mind, I decided to have a little fun with Gekko's Wall Street speech. Just a few minor edits that mostly entail substituting the word "gratitude" for "greed." The changes might not be all that relevant to the movie, but as a life creed I find I like it this way much better:

"The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that gratitude, for lack of a better word, is good. Gratitude is right, gratitude works. Gratitude clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the most fundamental spirit. Gratitude, in all of its forms; gratitude for life, for money, for love, knowledgehas marked the upward surge of mankind. And gratitude, you mark my words, will not only contribute to the health of each one of us individually, but to our malfunctioning institutions and society in general. Thank you very much."

Sleep well, be grateful, and give others a reason to be grateful too on this Thanksgiving and in the year to come.

Tags: greed, social relationships, gratitude, thanksgiving, generosity