The next time you get the urge to overspend, you may want to take a moment to count your current blessings.
A new study published this month in the journal “Psychological Science” found that cultivating a sense of gratitude not only helps boost your overall well-being; it may also help curb your urge to splurge.
“Gratitude reduces excessive economic impatience,” write study authors David DeSteno, Ye Li, Leah Dickens and Jennifer S. Lerner in the report.
It not only makes people feel better about their current circumstances; it also influences how they react to long and short-term choices — such as whether they should invest their money in a retirement fund or spend it on a beach vacation.
“Research has already shown that gratitude enhances behaviors, such as cooperation, that favor long-term gain even at an immediate cost,” write researchers.
This study takes that concept one step further by demonstrating that feeling grateful also makes it more likely that you’ll choose future financial gain — such as a bigger nest egg at retirement — over short-term pain.
Inside the study
The researchers came to their conclusions after polling 75 participants and asking them to choose between a small amount of cash now or a larger amount of cash later.
A third of the participants were also asked to think about a specific event that made them feel grateful, while another third were asked to think about an event that made them happy. The final third were asked to recall an average day in which nothing much happened.
The participants who took the time to think about what made them grateful were substantially more likely than the rest to choose the bigger reward, even if it meant forgoing immediate gratification.
Participants who were encouraged to feel happy or neutral, by contrast, tended to be much less patient.
Researchers say they weren’t surprised — particularly since people frequently choose the present over the future. When a potential benefit is a long way off, people tend to underestimate the value of that benefit and choose an immediate payoff instead, write researchers. That, in turn, can cause all kinds of problems down the road — especially if the actions you take now affect where you end up.
“Indeed, the tendency to favor smaller immediate gains over larger long-term ones may underlie problems ranging from credit card debt to unhealthy eating,” they wrote in the report.
It’s about more than just willpower
According to study co-author David DeSteno, the study’s findings are especially important because they go against the idea that all you need to do to be successful is to ignore your feelings and force yourself to take the smarter route.
“The usual advice for combating the desire to spend money for short-term gratification has centered on using willpower to tamp down emotional response,” writes DeSteno in a related blog post for the Harvard Business Review. “Squelch that craving for a shopping spree! Although this strategy can work at times — especially since emotions like sadness have been shown to exacerbate financial impatience — it’s not optimal.”
Instead, you may have an easier time reining in your spending if you deliberately cultivate feelings of gratitude instead — either by recalling specific things or experiences that you’re glad for or by routinely writing down your blessings.
“If people get in a daily practice of doing a gratitude diary, it should buttress their patience or impulse control during the day,” said DeSteno in a separate interview with Northeastern University, where he teaches psychology. “Or when you’re faced with a challenging temptation in the moment, rather than solely trying to exert willpower, simply stopping and thinking of something you’re grateful for should enhance your ability to make a wiser decision.”