Ancient wisdom traditions have long held that gratitude is a prerequisite for fulfillment. Focusing on what we have, instead of what we think we need, fortifies the mind against rampant desire that ultimately leaves us feeling empty.
The difficulty we face in living out that wisdom comes in the form of challenges to self-control – our perilous dance with instant gratification and temptation. Now new research suggests that gratitude can help us out here as well, by improving our decision-making chops by fortifying our patience.
Researchers tested this theory by putting study participants through a test of financial self-control after they were pre-conditioned to feel one of three emotional states: (1) Grateful, (2) Happy, or (3) Neutral. The pre-conditioning was achieved by having the participants write about a life experience that made them feel either grateful, happy, or left them feeling a lot of nothing.
The financial test was very basic: participants could either choose to receive $54 now or $80 in three days. Alternatively, they could negotiate to receive a lesser or greater amount now instead of more later (for example, a participant could choose to take a $60 payout now instead of an $85 payout later).
The typical reaction to these tests is that most people opt for less money upfront instead of waiting for more. Participants in this study who were pre-conditioned to feel happy or no particular emotion mostly reacted exactly as expected – they wanted the cash now.
But participants feeling grateful showed more restraint, with significantly more in this group opting to wait longer for the larger amount of money. And the more grateful participants reported feeling, the more patient they were.
“Showing that emotion can foster self-control and discovering a way to reduce impatience with a simple gratitude exercise opens up tremendous possibilities for reducing a wide range of societal ills from impulse buying and insufficient saving to obesity and smoking,” said study co-author Assistant Professor Ye Li from the University of California, RiversideSchool of Business Administration.
It’s not entirely clear why feeling more grateful increases patience, but it may simply be that gratitude is an emotional counterbalance to selfishness.
Juliann Wiese, an executive coach who consults with several top-tier companies, says the study buttresses something she’s found to be repeatedly true in her experience. "In my coaching practice, I've observed that once people shift their focus to what's already worthwhile in their lives--instead of what they think they are missing--their decision-making skills rapidly improve."
Just as people in this study were pre-conditioned to feel grateful, there’s likely benefit in putting ourselves in a grateful mindset to alter our perspective. According to Wiese: "Filtering decisions through a gratitude-centered perspective isn't only important for making better decisions on the job, but across all aspects of our lives. People are simply more patient and less prone to jumping at the first offer or fleeting hint of temptation when they’re grounded in gratitude.”
The study was published in the journal Psychological Science.
You can find David DiSalvo on Twitter@neuronarrative and at Forbes. His latest book is Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain’s Power To Adapt Can Change Your Life.