Gratitude is great — paying it forward is even better

| November 20, 2014
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We’re in the season of gratitude, and thank goodness for that.

The air’s turned colder and it’s dark by 4 pm, giving us sufficient fodder for complaints (on top of our usual stuff). So remembering to get a little grateful really does helps. If we’re busy reflecting on the love we feel for mashed potatoes, there’s no room to hate on a 3:54 sunset. It’s replacement thinking; it doesn’t make the bad stuff go away, but it makes it less important.

Plus, practicing gratitude is easy. All we have to do is lean back and think about what’s good in our life. It brings on a sense of contentment to beat the band. What could be better than that?

Paying it forward.

Paying it forward matches gratitude (it makes us happy) and multiplies it (it makes other people happy and perpetuates the happiness).

Just so there’s no confusion, let’s define what the phrase means. Paying it forward is when you do something kind or generous or helpful for someone without being asked or expecting something in return. The only requirement is that the person who receives the kindness then extends one to someone else, and so on.

We’d argue, however, that even if the receiver doesn’t pay it forward in turn, he or she has been affected in a positive way. And their response will manifest more goodness: smiling a bit more that day, perhaps, or displaying more patience than usual.

Intending to make a difference
Doing good unto others because you can is encouraging and contagious. And that stems from the dual intention behind paying it forward.

1. It makes us feel better about ourselves. That alone improves life, much like gratitude does.

2. It also counteracts other people’s negative beliefs and shifts their perspective (temporarily or otherwise). It might restore someone’s faith in humankind. It might give someone hope. It might provoke someone to make his life or another’s life better in some way.

There are no rules about how to pay it forward or how often. Maybe it’s a one-time effort like these:

• This past August, 378 drivers paid it forward at a St. Petersburg, FL, Starbucks drive-through when they bought a coffee drink for the car behind them.

• A month later, a man at the Chick-Fil-A drive-through in Albilene, TX, gave an employee $1,000 to buy meals for the cars behind him. He fed 88 people, bringing tears to one woman who’d had a particularly bad day.

No one may ever buy that woman a meal again, but that single act most likely altered her perspective forever. Wouldn’t it alter yours?

Or it may be a more concerted effort, such as:

• New York City hairstylist Mark Bustos, who since 2012 has spent his Sundays giving free haircuts to the homeless to encourage them to make other life changes.

• The blogger of Letters Left in London, who writes anonymous notes, poems, and quotes and leaves them in public places to offer warmth to the people who find them.

• Well-known role models such as designer Donna Karan, dancer Misty Copeland, and editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel who actively seek out opportunities to mentor.

If practiced regularly, paying it forward could change your corner of the world in ways you might not even imagine. How rewarding is that?

Pointers from a prolific giver
Adam Grant is a shining example of paying it forward. A Wharton professor and the author of Give and Take, 33-year-old Professor Grant is a natural giver. He answers every email he receives (200 to 300 daily). He nominates colleagues for awards, introduces his students to important people in his network, spends four and a half hours every week granting student requests. And he still manages to teach, research, and publish.

How does he do it without burning out? It’s a fairly simple strategy, as reported in the New York Times, and one that we all can practice.

• Frame it as a positive. Instead of seeing the act of giving as a burden (Judging this contest is going to take all of my day off), consider it an opportunity to feel good about yourself (I’m doing the right thing by helping Stan out of a jam).

• Frame it as important. Focus on the outcome of what you’re giving. What is the ultimate good that will happen as a result of your action? Paying attention to that defines your purpose and builds your motivation.

• Concentrate your actions. Professor Grant purposely holds office hours once a week for an extended period of time because the compacted period feels more gratifying than spreading it out over time. 

• Think about your actions. When you take the time to reflect on the good you’ve done, you get a beneficial mood boost that you wouldn’t without reflection.

• Avoid takers. There are some people who accept generosity and come back for more without contributing back (or forward). This saps your energy and your motivation. Give very judiciously, if at all, to takers.

It’s a game-changer, this giving without expectation. It gives us the power to reshape our existence, to stay above the fray, to keep trying. “The greatest untapped source of motivation,” says Professor Grant, “is a sense of service to others.” 

How can you start paying it forward?

Next week: New! In-the-moment tip cards to get unstuck
Last week: “The best work advice I ever got”

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