Sunday, April 22 , 2018, 5:45 am | Fair 53º


Cynder Sinclair: Gratitude’s Secret Ripple Effect on Community

What does Thanksgiving bring to mind? Turkey with all the trimmings? Shoppers rushing to Black Friday sales? A day spent with family and friends? Watching TV with a too-full belly? What if we look at Thanksgiving in a different way — from the gratitude angle? Not just sitting around the turkey-laden table sharing our gratitude list with our table mates, but really digging into the health and community benefits of giving thanks.

I recently read a research paper from National Taiwan University on what’s called upstream reciprocity. I was surprised to discover this study reveals a ripple effect occurring from the simple act of giving, potentially transforming an entire community.

Here’s how it works: When someone receives a gift or favor from another, it typically produces gratitude on the part of the recipient. The study calls this downstream reciprocity. We see this displayed frequently during the holidays by donors giving to nonprofit organizations, helping serve Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless and giving turkeys to the Foodbank. Of course, the nonprofits are grateful for help from donors and volunteers, and recipients of the goodwill are appreciative. However, in addition to givers feeling good about their generosity and recipients feeling grateful for the assistance, the act of being grateful creates a third reality called upstream reciprocity.

According to the study, when someone feels gratitude toward another, that person is more likely to become a giver himself — often to an unrelated third party. The original giver set an example of generosity; the recipient felt a positive feeling of gratitude toward the giver; therefore, the recipient feels drawn to give to others. The study explains that this phenomenon occurs “by broadening the beneficiary’s perspective toward others and thus making the beneficiary feel aligned with the benefactor and want to give to others who may be strangers.” As a result, gratitude can lead to a chain reaction of upstream reciprocity, often called paying it forward, thereby strengthening entire communities. Clearly, gratitude spurred by generosity can spread far and wide in social networks.

The New York Times recently ran a story citing a dramatic increase of customers at fast-food drive-through establishments anonymously paying for the customer in line behind them. Perhaps one of the largest examples of drive-through generosity occurred at Tim Hortons in Winnipeg, Manitoba, last December when 227 cars in a row paid it forward. Yet this goodness gone viral is not uncommon. Fast-food employees report that it’s becoming a frequent practice for drive-through customers to pay for the car behind them. The reason appears to support the findings in the study about downstream reciprocity. “I just do it out of kindness rather than for recognition,” one customer explained. She said her kindness stemmed from feeling appreciative for benevolence others have shown her in the past.

A paper published in the Journal of Happiness Studies reported the positive psychological perspective of gratitude makes people feel more socially attached to others beyond themselves. As the paper notes, “Gratitude may cause individuals to transfer the goodwill they previously received to people other than their benefactors.” The study states further that focusing on the delight we create in others increases our own joy.

Without a doubt, generosity and gratitude are contagious, with far-reaching ripple effects. “When someone shows me such unexpected thoughtfulness, it restores my faith in the love and compassion of the human spirit and I want to join in on the fun,” one study participant explained.

So, the next time you give to an organization or an individual, know that your gift may actually have a much larger impact than you realize. And the next time you are the recipient of someone’s generosity, think of the principle of upstream reciprocity and look for ways to pay the kindness forward to others — strangers you may not even know. Being aware of the secret ripple effect of gratitude and intentionally looking for ways to use it can transform our entire community — and increase your own joy in the process.

This study makes me want to look closer at my own gratitude list this Thanksgiving season — and throughout the year. I want to notice and appreciate the generosity of those who donate financially to our local nonprofits, those who volunteer for our plethora of causes, reporters who shine the spotlight on good works, foundations who read over our grant requests and the important work of our social media friends. And I want to examine my own giving. Is it intentional? Am I paying it forward?

In addition to being generous to our nonprofits, I want to remember that the practice of charitable giving and receiving has immense potential to transform our community through the principle of upstream reciprocity. It’s contagious, so jump in. Together our gratitude can make an enormous ripple effect in our community.

— Cynder Sinclair, Ph.D., is a local consultant to nonprofits and founder and CEO of Nonprofit Kinect. She can be contacted at 805.689.2137, or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). The opinions expressed are her own.

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