The relationship between giving and gratitude
In the run up to Christmas, you may be considering what presents to buy for others, or even pre-empting what gifts you may receive. This short blog post considers the possible impacts of giving and receiving gifts, with a particular focus on experiences of gratitude.
What is gratitude?
When considering the Christmas gifts that we receive, there are three significant factors that might influence the degree of gratitude that we experience. The first is cost. That is, how much does it cost the benefactor to bestow this gift? This doesn’t necessarily mean financial cost, however, as a benefit can be viewed as ‘costly’ if it required considerable effort or thought. For instance, a handmade scarf might not cost the benefactor much to make yet would be costly in terms of time. We tend to be more grateful for the gifts we consider as costly to provide.
The second factor is value of the benefit. In other words, do we want or need the benefit that we have received? Research conducted in the UK and Australia suggests that we are less grateful for something we consider non-valuable or unwanted (Morgan, Gulliford & Waters, in press). From personal experience, you might recognise that the festive mug that won’t fit into your already overfilled kitchen cabinet or the itchy Christmas jumper that it two sizes too big is unlikely to elicit the same level of grateful emotion as a gift that you will really enjoy. This doesn’t mean that we don’t experience any gratitude in these cases though, often we still acknowledge the cost involved or the good intentions of the benefactor. As the proverb states, sometimes ‘it’s the thought that counts’.
This brings us nicely onto the third amplifier of gratitude experience, intention. We tend to be more grateful for gifts that are bestowed through good intention. Benevolence has been considered a key determinant of whether we experience gratitude, and philosophers have argued that gratitude is not warranted in cases where an individual hasn’t intentionally tried to benefit you or where the intention is not altruistic (McConnell, 2021). Empirical data and anecdotal evidence does suggest, however, that gratitude can be experienced in some cases where there is no intention or where there is an ulterior motive at play (Morgan & Gulliford, 2015). For example, one can be grateful for a much-needed organ donation (where there is no explicit intention to benefit a particular individual) or in situations where a benefactor is motivated by the prospect of receiving help or reciprocation in the future (i.e., a self-serving purpose). These examples illustrate how the three amplifying factors can interact and all three needn’t be present at once to experience gratitude. We may be grateful when there are non-benevolent intentions should the benefit be of great value, or, as noted earlier, we can be grateful for an unwanted gift when we consider it to be costly or well-intentioned.
Why is this important?
Being aware of these amplifiers can be useful when reflecting on benefits received to gauge appropriate (or proportionate) responses to benefaction. Expressing our gratitude to the benefactor allows the ‘upward spiral’ of gratitude to continue. That is, when a benefactor is thanked for their benefaction, these actions are reinforced and they are more likely to behave in similar ways in the future (McCullough et al., 2001). At the same time, experiencing grateful emotion can motivate the beneficiary (or recipient) to act pro-socially towards others as well. For example, helping a stranger in need. This allows the positive aspects of gratitude to be passed on from person to person.
An important caveat
It is important to note that receiving a gift or benefit may not necessarily lead to feelings of gratitude. Evidence also demonstrates that our emotional responses to gratitude may not be entirely positive (Gulliford & Morgan, 2016). For example, receiving a benefit that is perceived to be extremely costly to the benefactor could prompt a sense of indebtedness, or even concern about how one could ever repay such a benefaction. Alternatively, should you receive a gift that you really dislike, you may fail to experience grateful emotion. This can lead individuals to feel guilt or awkwardness. These are natural responses to receiving gifts that many of us can empathise with. So, whilst gratitude has largely been described as a positively valenced experience, there are certainly cases where gratitude might co-occur with unpleasant feelings too. Acknowledging and embracing this might help to counteract these unpleasant feelings and promote psychological wellbeing (Morgan et al., 2015).
With luck, this blog post will encourage you to consider your own experiences of gratitude, and the diversity of feelings that might be prompted by others’ gift-giving. To end on a positive note, gratitude can be a powerful source of positivity and a motivator of prosocial behaviour – hopefully we can all play a role in continuing the upward spiral of positive emotion this Christmastime!
Dr Blaire Morgan
Blaire Morgan is Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Worcester. She received her B.Sc. and Ph.D. from the University of Birmingham. Her research spans Positive Psychology and Cyberpsychology and examines character strengths and wellbeing in children, adolescents and adults. This has included, for example, development and evaluation of character strengths and wellbeing programmes, social media research into authenticity and empathy online, and developmental and cross-cultural explorations of gratitude and wellbeing in the UK and Australia. Her research has appeared in print and broadcast media and has led to a number of invited presentations internationally as well as invited book chapters alongside experts in the fields of psychology, moral education and virtue ethics. At the University of Worcester, Blaire leads a research theme on “Strengths and Adversity Across the Life Span”, and she has a number of ongoing national and international collaborations alongside academics within psychology, public health, philosophy and education.