Gratitude Trumps Willpower for Resisting Temptation

Having trouble resisting the urge to eat an unhealthy snack or charge something you don’t really need? Instead of trying to summon your willpower, ramp up your gratitude quotient and you’ll be better able to walk away from temptation. That’s the finding of a study done by researchers at Northwestern University, the University of California, Riverside, and Harvard Kennedy School. The paper will be published in the journal Psychological Science.

A release from Northwester explains that the team assessed impatience by using a set of decisions pitting desire for instant gratification against waiting for larger, future rewards. For example, participants were asked to choose between receiving $54 now or $80 in 30 days. To increase the stakes, participants had the chance to obtain one of the financial rewards they selected. But before making these decisions, participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions in which they wrote about an event from their past that made them feel (a) grateful, (b) happy, or (c) neutral, depending on condition.

Participants who felt neutral and happy showed a strong preference for immediate payouts while those who felt grateful showed more patience. Not only that, but the degree of patience people exhibited was directly related to the amount of gratitude any individual felt. Positive feelings alone were not enough to enhance patience. Happy participants were just as impatient as those who felt neutral. The influence of gratitude, possibly due to its ties to a sense of fulfillment and a need to "pay back" in the future, was quite specific.

The researchers maintain that implications of this finding are profound. "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," says Assistant Professor Ye Li from the University of California, Riverside School of Business Administration. Harvard Kennedy School Professor Jennifer Lerner underscored that economic impatience is one of the most common and troubling tendencies in human decision making. 

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