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Give More Than Just Thanks: The Psychological Upsides To Giving Back

Gratitude is a powerful emotion we should all tap into more often, but the benefits of altruistic teamwork might have it beat.

Give More Than Just Thanks: The Psychological Upsides To Giving Back
[Photo: filadendron/Getty]

A couple friends of mine are on the verge of opening a bar in Austin. In the run-up, they wanted to make their new team of employees feel connected to each other and to the community they’ll be serving, so they all got together one recent Sunday morning to help clean up a local no-kill animal shelter. Sure, the bar could’ve launched with a happy hour special, then donated some of the proceeds to the shelter. That would’ve made an impact, too–just not quite the same kind.

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This time of year especially, we tend to hear a lot about how important gratitude is. Among other things, it’s a powerful motivator, not just of individuals but of teams. Some people make a habit of counting their blessings–including in the most literal sense, by keeping “gratitude journals,” for example, to reflect on what’s going right, to maintain a positive outlook, and to plan for the future. The period between Thanksgiving and the end of the year is also the season when organizations launch charitable drives and collect toys or canned goods to support those in need. These activities can all make people feel connected to their communities to encourage everyone to reflect on what they’re grateful for.

But none of these efforts are quite as powerful, in terms of the positive psychological outcomes they foster, as actually doing something together for the larger community. Giving thanks and giving money are great, but giving back–as a group–is even better.

The Wear And Tear Of Not-So-Social Workdays

As it’s often said, human beings are indeed a social species. Much of your brain is devoted to maintaining your social ties. No matter how introverted or occasionally antisocial you might be, you’re still innately motivated to cooperate with others, particularly with those you consider to be part of your team. When you work effectively with other people, it feels good, and those positive emotions are proof that your motivational system is achieving its goals–which in turn makes it easier to cooperate with those same team members again in the future.


Related: The Surprising Benefits Of Gratitude


Obviously, that virtuous circle can sometimes get buried or broken in a high-stress workplace. It’s not easy to feel this social connection with all of your colleagues all the time. So much of the daily grind involves dealing with problems that come up in the moment, which can make you feel like you’re at odds with or disconnected from your team.

Many people spend their days sitting at their desks alone as it is–communicating through email, Slack, or text rather than in person, and leaving little opportunity to feel as though they’re pulling together as a group. Even in a busy environment like a bar, colleagues might not get to interact much amid the chaos of a full house.

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Taking time to give back through collaborative volunteer work breaks the normal cycle of work. It gives team members a chance to reestablish their connections with each other without having to achieve a particular goal in their own workplace. And it can reinforce collegial relationships even after everyone returns to work, because they’ve contributed to a goal that’s actually meaningful. That’s far better than just going to some strange corporate retreat where you solve a pointless but difficult problem and leave without making any lasting impact.


Related: Why Volunteering Is The Single Most Overlooked Skill On Resumes


Why Purpose And Impact Matter

It’s been suggested in recent years that millennials are more motivated by “purpose” in the work they do than their older colleagues are. But there’s reason to doubt that one generation responds more to meaningful work than any other. Every group of employees will feel more connected to their workplace and to each other when they have a chance to do something purposeful together–whether as a result of their ordinary work tasks or as part of a separate volunteer effort.

Psychologists know that people are happiest at work when they see their work as a vocation that calls out to them, rather than just a job that they do. This sense is enhanced by working for an organization that you believe shares your values. By working together in the community, the entire organization is demonstrating that it wants to live its values in a way that feeds back to everybody, including those outside its own walls.

Finally, when everyone–from the leaders to the front-line employees–get out in the community and make an altruistic contribution, everyone is more likely to treat each other humanely inside the workplace. It can be easy for organizations to break into factions and unknowingly assume “us versus them” mentalities. Sometimes upper management and employees may feel like they’re barely from the same planet, or two departments can come to resent one another while squabbling over budget resources.

Joining together in a common cause is one of the fastest ways to break up those cliques and neutralize the ill will that they feed on. Make group volunteer work an ongoing part of your company culture, and these shared experiences become part of the lore of what it means to work at the organization. That can prove a much more powerful and long-lasting motivator than what you’d get from any self-reflection you can do–or donations you can make–on your own.