Be thankful and make better long-term decisions

We are notoriously bad at foregoing instant gratification for longer-term rewards. In laboratory studies and in the real world, people frequently make impatient decisions that economists would call “suboptimal,” and, in real-life terms, result in credit card debt, obesity, or drug addiction.

Add emotion to the mix, and the decision-making seems to get worse: sad people make even more impatient financial decisions, one study found. Stamping out emotional responses seems like the best path to making wiser and more logical decisions.

A team of researchers led by a Northeastern University psychologist has found, however, that one emotion can make us more patient: feeling grateful improves people’s ability to take the long-view when making financial decisions.

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In a study to be published in the journal Psychological Science, they found that, on average, grateful people were more willing to forego immediate temptation for a larger reward than people who were merely neutral or happy.

Grateful people offered a choice between a lower sum today and a larger sum in three months had to be offered much more money in the immediate term to choose it. They had to be offered $63 today, in order to forego $85 in three months, whereas happy and neutral people would take $55 now rather than wait for $85.

“If we accept the view humans possess emotional responses for adaptive reasons—they do things for us—sure, they can lead us to make decisions that don’t make much sense,” said David DeSteno, a psychologist at Northeastern. “It probably is the case that we have specific emotions that make us take the long-term view as well. And if that is the case, that opens a whole new way to design interventions that can help people make better economic and purchasing decisions.”

DeSteno said he plans to see how far gratitude can stretch our self-control and patience, examining whether interventions such as keeping a diary of things people feel thankful for will help them live healthier, by staying on a diet or exercising more.

That doesn’t mean that taking the long view is always the best decision, but it does show that emotions can powerfully influence our behavior. DeSteno’s previous work on gratitude has shown that people feeling thankful seem to be more likely to think about the future, attempt to repay someone, or share profits equally.

Whether feeling thankful will actually help people in real world situations avoid cupcakes, exercise more, and put more money away for retirement remains to be seen, but the upside of the research is that gratitude has its virtues anyway. There’s little to lose in feeling grateful each day, and—potentially—even more to gain.