Gratitude: ‘A vaccine against impulsiveness’

What small thing are you grateful for today? Me? I am grateful that David DeSteno, pro­fessor of psy­chology in the Col­lege of Sci­ence, agreed to post­pone our inter­view on Tuesday about his new paper because I wasn’t feeling well.

The paper, which recently appeared in the journal Emo­tion, shows how cul­ti­vating grat­i­tude for everyday occur­rences leads to greater patience and more self-control, in par­tic­ular, the ability to forgo imme­diate mon­e­tary rewards for future ones.

We can all point to the five things in our lives that we’re most grateful for, but if we keep thinking about those, we’ll habit­uate to them—they’re going to stop being inter­esting,” says DeSteno. Rather, to cul­ti­vate grat­i­tude we should reflect on daily events: the woman who stopped to give you direc­tions, the man who gave you his seat on the T. “Those kinds of daily grat­i­tude boosters will func­tion like a vac­cine against impul­sive­ness and enhance self-control and future ori­ent­ed­ness,” he says.

From a cha­rade to a revelation

DeSteno and co-author Leah Dickens, PhD’15, his former stu­dent, con­ducted the research in three phases:

First, they brought the participants—105 North­eastern undergraduates—into the lab and ran a “grat­i­tude inducing par­a­digm,” a cha­rade that ended with an actor helping each stu­dent restart his or her “crashed” com­puter in order to com­plete a frus­trating task that had been inter­rupted when the screen went black. The stu­dents had been told that they would have to start the task from the begin­ning again, but when the machines blinked back on nothing, mirac­u­lously, had been lost. After­ward, they rated their emo­tional states—How happy are you? How grateful?—on a seven-point scale.

Next the researchers sent the stu­dents “out into the world” for three weeks, pinging them daily on their smart­phones to mea­sure their emo­tional states via online ques­tion­naires. In gen­eral, says DeSteno, “their levels of grat­i­tude in the lab pre­dicted their levels of grat­i­tude in real life.” That made him con­fi­dent that the stu­dents’ responses over the three weeks were reliable.

Finally, they admin­is­tered a 27-measure survey to assess the role of grat­i­tude in their life choices: Would the stu­dents rather receive a smaller amount of money now (say, $30) or a larger amount at some future date (say, $50)?

What we found was that people who had higher levels of grat­i­tude in their daily lives were more patient and less impul­sive when it came to those finan­cial deci­sions,” says DeSteno. “That sug­gests that the more you reg­u­larly expe­ri­ence grat­i­tude, the more self-control you have in var­ious areas of your life.”

The find­ings upend con­ven­tional wisdom: Emo­tions such as grat­i­tude, more than willpower, help cur­tail impul­sive behavior by leading us to act in a more future-oriented way.

DeSteno doesn’t just research the sub­ject of grat­i­tude; he prac­tices it. Among the things he’s grateful for today? “I’m grateful that when I left a bag on the train this morning—because I was reading a text—a stranger ran after me to hand me the bag,” he says.

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