Saying “thank you” feels good. And not just for the person on the receiving end (when there is one), but also for the person doing the thanking: it seems that practicing gratitude can help people to focus on the positive and improve wellbeing. While researching aspects of financial capability for one of our upcoming papers, I came across a new study showing that the benefits of gratitude may extend even further.
Image via creative commons by Bart Maguire
The research by DeSteno, Li, Dickens, and Lerner shows that evoking a sense of gratitude in people can lead to lower levels of impatience when it comes to making decision with financial consequences – in other words it can help people to delay gratification.
The notion that practicing gratitude can help people delay gratification is incredibly important. Not only does it have financial implications around the ease of putting money away for the future, but also much research in the past has found the disposition to delay gratification to be correlated with various measures of success later in life.
Walter Mischel’s marshmallow experiment is perhaps one of the best know-known examples of work in this field. Later, Terry Moffit and colleagues’ longitudinal study found that children who exhibited “self-control” appeared to have better outcomes on a range of measures at the age of 32, including around health, wealth, and employment.
Discussions around self-control are not always straightforward. Moffit states that “self-control is an umbrella construct that bridges concepts and measurements from different disciplines (e.g. impulsivity, conscientiousness, self-regulation, delay of gratification, inattention-hyperactivity, executive function, willpower, and intertemporal choice)”, illustrating the complex nature of the construct. Previously on this blog and elsewhere we've discussed that Impulsivity or immediate gratification does not necessarily indicate a lack of self-control, and in fact it could be a very smart strategy when there is a lack of trust about the intention or capability of the person to deliver on the delayed offer.
The irony of the findings of the DeSteno et al research is that practicing gratitude, which may actually improve monetary outcomes, might also help someone to become more appreciative of the non-monetary blessings in life - friends, family, a walk in the countryside, or a really good night's sleep - leaving the monetary benefit seem redundant or stale.
If we know that gratitude in and of itself is good for us, and it leads to other dispositions which have been shown to have material, social, and health benefits, shouldn't we be encouraging the practice of gratitude in our homes, schools, and places of employment?
Look out for more on financial capability from the Social Brain Centre later in the year. In an upcoming paper in collaboration with the LSE, we explore the nature of financial capability, some of the many challenges to managing our money well (including impulsivity) from a behavioural science perspective, and suggestions around teaching financial capability effectively.
Nathalie Spencer is a Senior Researcher in the RSA’s Social Brain Centre.