From "Gratitude Is The New Willpower," by David DeSteno, from HBR Blog Network.
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We designed an experiment (now in press at the journal Psychological Science) that presented participants with a set of 27 questions, which pit a desire for immediate cash against a willingness to wait for larger rewards at various times in the future. For example, one question required study subjects to choose between receiving $54 now or $80 in 30 days. To increase the stakes, participants knew they had a chance to obtain one of the financial rewards they had selected; it wasn’t purely hypothetical. If they chose the immediate cash, they’d be paid then and there; if they chose the delayed amount, we’d send them a check. However, before they made these decisions, we randomly assigned each one of them to recall and briefly write about an event from their past that made them feel (a) grateful, (b) happy, or (c) neutral.
As we expected, individuals who wrote about neutral or happy times had a strong preference for immediate payouts. But those who’d described feeling grateful showed significantly more patience. They required an immediate $63, on average, to forgo receiving $85 in three months, whereas the neutral and happy groups required only $55, on average, to forgo the same future gain. Even more telling was the fact that any given participant’s degree of patience was directly related to the amount of gratitude he or she reported feeling. It’s important to note that positive feelings alone were not enough to enhance patience: Happy participants were just as impatient as those in the neutral condition. The influence of gratitude was quite specific.
We see broad implications for these findings, since they suggest that gratitude can foster long-term thinking. We all recognize the fact that willpower can and does fail at times. Having an alternative source of patience – one that can come from something as simple as reflecting on an emotional memory – offers an important new tool for long-term success. And that itself is something to be grateful for.