I wasn’t surprised today to learn that a new study has found a connection between gratitude and patience. After all, if you value what you have, which is what gratitude accomplishes for us, then there’s less emotional need to go seeking something else.
The study, carried out by a team of researchers from Northeastern University, the University of California, Riverside, and Harvard Kennedy School, looked specifically at financial impatience. Financial impatience is a well-known phenomenon where larger rewards in the future are considered less important than smaller rewards in the present.
Participants in the study chose between receiving a larger sum in the future, or a smaller sum now. The researchers used real money so that the participants would experience real motivation (and real impatience).
Before they made their choice, the participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups where they wrote about an event from their past that made them feel grateful, or happy, or neutral.
The neutral and happy groups showed a strong preference for immediate payouts, but those feeling grateful showed more patience. For example, grateful people required $63 immediately to forgo receiving $85 in three months, whereas neutral and happy people required only $55 to forgo the future gain. Positive feelings alone were not enough to enhance patience, as happy participants were just as impatient as those in the neutral condition.
What’s more, the degree of patience exhibited was directly related to the amount of gratitude any individual felt. The more grateful a participant felt after the writing exercise, the more likely they were to wait for the delayed reward.
Normally we think of the ability to delay gratification as a function of “willpower,” but in my view willpower is overrated. When I discovered how to get myself to meditate every day — something I’d struggled with for years — the solution had nothing to do with willpower. Instead, it was to do with how I saw myself. Similarly, this study had nothing to do with willpower.
To me it’s intuitively obvious that in a moment where we’re experiencing gratitude, and therefore value what we already have, we feel less need to have more, and so we’re prepared to wait for a benefit to arrive rather than grasp after it. Gratitude makes the present moment a rich experience, and so we have a reduced need to enrich ourselves right now.
The researchers point out that the implications of the study are profound, and that it could open the way to new therapeutic techniques to address human suffering.
Assistant Professor Ye Li from the University of California, Riverside School of Business Administration, said “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.”
Therapeutic techniques that borrowed from Buddhist practices started by tapping into teachings on mindfulness. But over time, mindfulness was seen not to be enough and so teachings on lovingkindness (metta) were increasingly incorporated. The current hot thing is compassion. It’ll be interesting to watch the addition of gratitude and appreciation (which in Buddhism are closely associated with the practice of mudita, or joyful appreciation) to therapists’ tool kits.