Studies from my lab show that gratitude directly increases self-control.
Our research also shows that when we make people feel grateful, they’ll spend more time helping anyone who asks for assistance, they’ll make financial decisions that benefit partners equally (rather than ones that allow profit at a partner’s expense), and they’ll show loyalty to those who have helped them even at costs to themselves.
What these findings show is that pride, gratitude and compassion, whether we consciously realize it or not, reduce the human mind’s tendency to discount the value of the future. In so doing, they push us not only to cooperate with other people but also to help our own future selves. Feeling pride or compassion has been shown to increase perseverance on difficult tasks by over 30 percent. Likewise, gratitude and compassion have been tied to better academic performance, a greater willingness to exercise and eat healthily, and lower levels of consumerism, impulsivity and tobacco and alcohol use.
If using willpower causes stress, using these emotions actually heals: They slow heart rate, lower blood pressure and reduce feelings of anxiety and depression. By making us value the future more, they ease the way to patience and perseverance.
Perhaps most important, while these emotions enhance self-control, they also combat another problem of modern life: loneliness. From 1985 to 2004, the percentage of people who reported having at least one friend on whom they could rely and with whom they could discuss important matters dropped to 57 percent from 80 percent. Today, more than half of all Americans report feeling lonely, especially in their professional lives. But study after study has shown that those who are seen as grateful, warm and justifiably confident draw others to them. Because these emotions automatically make us less selfish, they help ensure we can form relationships with people who will be there to support us when we need it.
Cultivating the social emotions maximizes both our “résumé virtues” (those that underlie professional success) and our “eulogy virtues” (those for which we want to be remembered). In nudging the mind to be more patient and more selfless, they benefit everyone whom our decisions impact, including our own future selves. In short, they give us not only grit but also grace.
So as 2018 commences, take more time to cultivate these emotions. Reflect on what you’re grateful to have been given. Allow your mind to step into the shoes of those in need and feel for them. Take pride in the small achievements on the path to your goals.
David DeSteno writing in the New York Times