Count Your Good Deeds

By Temma Ehrenfeld  @temmaehrenfeld
October 20, 2015

We’re often advised to count our blessings, but noting your good deeds is important, too.

When was the last time you knew you’d really helped someone? If you’re helpful or giving by nature, and you stop to think about it, the answer might be “This morning!” or “Five minutes ago!” Adam Grant, a business professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, argues that your helpfulness, and recognizing it, will make you more productive.

Grant, who is known for his own non-stop generosity with his time and attention, tells us that human helpfulness is an under-used resource. Employers could do much more to motivate employees, he says, by showing them the positive effects of their actions on individuals, including other employees. In his best-seller, “Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success,” he also argues that people who rise to the top tend to be givers.

As part of his research on the psychology of giving, Grant and Jane Dutton of The Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan set out to see if feeling useful might be as motivating than gratitude. Studying fundraisers who solicit funds from university alumni, they told one group of fundraisers to write journal entries about their recent experiences of receiving help, the other about doing good.

As expected, those who contemplated their own good deeds were motivated to work harder: they increased their hourly calls by more than 29 percent over the next two weeks. But the volunteers who counted their blessings showed no change.

Another experiment, with college students, asked participants to list three ways they had recently given help, three ways they had recently received help, or three foods they had eaten in the last week. When invited to donate money several weeks later, participants who reflected on their own generosity were much more likely to give.

Most people are “matchers,” Grant writes in “Give and Take.” They try to give and take in equal amounts. Although that sounds reasonable, Grant argues that matchers don’t do as well in life as certain givers, who also beat the “takers.” Givers aren’t keeping score or expecting reciprocity.

You may not know how helpful — or selfish — you are. Grant invites his readers to test how much giving they do, asking for feedback from members of their circle. One powerful way to give is to help others craft their jobs to be more giving — and, of course, find ways to make your own work more about giving. Look for simple favors you can perform, for example, making an introduction or giving requested feedback. Do more listening. Join a giving community, like Freecycle, ServiceSpace, or Couchsurfers, who share their couches with travelers. On Kiva and Kickstarter, you can help fund projects. And, of course, volunteer for causes you are about.

Grant points out that people feel most gratified by giving if they spend somewhere between two and 11 hours a week on it and organize it in chunks: ideally, volunteer for part of a day once a week, perhaps, rather than doing one small thing every day. And don’t be shy about asking for help from givers and matchers, who will enjoy helping you, especially if the request is well-matched to their values and talents.  


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April 02, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN