Would you rather take $30 today, or wait for $50 three weeks from now? While the average person would grab the money and run, a new study finds that people with one particular emotional trait—those who are gracious—have more patience and self-control.
“The human mind has a tendency to value the present more than the future,” says study author David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University. “That’s related to all kinds of bad outcomes, from credit card debt to addiction.” According to DeSteno, a person’s emotional states have long been blamed for that person’s impatience, and the path to becoming more patient was thought to be through logic and willpower. But in his new study, published in the journal Emotion, DeSteno and his team set out to find if some emotions, specifically gratitude, can actually help people become more patient.
In the study, the researchers asked 105 people to complete a task on a computer. When they were close to finishing, the computer was rigged to break down. The experimenter would come in and say that when it’s fixed, the person will have to start the task over from the beginning. Then, another actor in the room would try to help the person fix the computer. Eventually, the actor would hit a button on the computer that would cause it to come back to life in five seconds, right where the person left off. Most of the people in the study reported feeling gratitude towards the actor. For the next three weeks, the researchers continued to measure gratitude levels. People who felt more gratitude during that frustrating computer task were also more likely to feel gratitude throughout their week.
At the end of three weeks, the men and women were offered some cash immediately or a higher amount later on. People in the study who were more gracious were more willing to wait for more money down the line.
“We found that gratitude increases people’s self control, and it increases their ability to wait,” says DeSteno. “[When] you cultivate gratitude in your life, it’s like a self-control buffer. It helps you more frequently be ready to resist temptation and do the right thing, whatever that right thing may be.”
The trick, according to DeSteno, is to not always focus on the biggest things in your life that you’re thankful for. “If you think about the same thing every day you are going to eventually habituate to it,” he says. Instead, focus on smaller things, like a nice favor someone did for you.
“By taking time to count your blessings and focus on things that you are grateful for, you are enhancing your self control,” he says.