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Be thankful and make better long-term decisions

DAVID DeSTENO

André Mehta

DAVID DeSTENO

We are notoriously bad at forgoing instant gratification for longer-term rewards. In laboratory studies and in the real world, people frequently make impatient decisions that economists would call “suboptimal,” and, in real-life terms, result in problems such as credit card debt, obesity, or drug addiction.

Add emotion to the mix, and the decision-making seems to get worse: Sad people make even more impatient financial decisions, a study by a Harvard Kennedy School researcher found.

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A team of researchers led by a Northeastern University psychologist has found, however, that one emotion can make us more patient: Feeling grateful improves people’s ability to take the long view when making financial decisions.

In a study to be published in the journal Psychological Science, they found that, on average, grateful people were more willing to forgo immediate temptation for a larger reward than people who were merely neutral or happy.

Grateful people who were offered a choice between a lower sum today and a larger sum in three months had to be offered much more money in the immediate term to choose it. They had to be offered $63 today, in order to forgo $85 in three months, whereas happy and neutral people would take $55 now rather than wait for $85.

“It probably is the case that we have specific emotions that make us take the long-term view as well,” said David DeSteno, a psychologist at Northeastern. “And if that is the case, that opens a whole new way to design interventions that can help people make better economic and purchasing decisions.”

Whether feeling thankful will actually help people in real-world situations avoid cupcakes, exercise regularly, and put more money away for retirement remains to be seen, but the upside of the research is that gratitude has its virtues anyway. There is little to lose in feeling grateful each day, and — potentially — more to gain.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.
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