June 13, 2014 at 6:19 PM ET
Struggling with savings? Rather than marshaling your willpower to be more disciplined, a new study suggests that the key to achieving your financial goals might be gratitude.
A sizable body of research shows that people tend to discount the value of future rewards in favor of short-term gratification, but a new paper in the June issue of “Psychological Science” finds that thankfulness triggers patience and a willingness to hold out for greater monetary gain.
In a series of experiments, subjects were offered an amount of money on the spot, or a greater amount if they waited until a predetermined future date. Researchers manipulated subjects’ frame of mind by asking them to spend five minutes writing about something that made them feel happy, grateful or neutral prior to being offered the money.
Participants who reflected on gratitude were less likely to take the smaller amount of money on the spot.
“On average, we increased people’s financial patience by about 12 percent. That doesn’t sound like much, but imagine if you could increase people’s savings by that much,” said David DeSteno, psychology professor at Northeastern University and lead author of the study in the June issue of Psychological Science.
The reason for that is there’s a quirk in the way our brains process gratitude, DeSteno said. It’s part of a group of emotions that tie us to other people and implicitly suggest reciprocity.
“What we’ve been able to show is that when people are feeling grateful, what they tend to do is behave in ways that benefit other people, even at cost to themselves … that usually entails some level of patience,” DeSteno says.
The link to financial discipline comes about because we view our future selves — who benefit when we do things like save money and curb impulse spending — as separate from ourselves in the here and now.
DeSteno said people who practice thankfulness on a regular basis are better able to resist the lure of short-term financial gratification. “One way to combat that temptation is to cultivate, fairly frequently, these thoughts of gratitude,” he said. “You can be grateful for friends, for family, lots of things.”