How Gratitude Helps Us Make Better Decisions (Study)

A new study from Northeastern University suggests the best way to increase patience when making big decisions is by practicing gratitude. 

Photo: Library and Archives Canada/

What fuels our decision-making: willpower or emotions? Researchers at Northeastern University are trying to see how the latter pans out.

“It’s our view that humans pos­sess the capacity for emo­tion because it serves adap­tive pur­poses,” study author David DeSteno said. “That doesn’t mean that some­times emo­tions can’t lead you astray. They can, but so can reason.”

To see if patience could be cultivated through emotions, the team studied gratitude.

Here’s how the researchers tested gratitude and patience, from Northeastern:

To test whether grat­i­tude really does improve our patience, specif­i­cally in the con­text of finan­cial rewards, his team con­ducted a simple exper­i­ment. They evenly assigned 75 people to one of three con­di­tions. One group had to recall an event that made them feel grateful. The second thought of an event that made them happy. And the final group con­sid­ered the events of a typ­ical day. Each wrote about the memory for five minutes.

Next the par­tic­i­pants answered survey ques­tions designed to help DeSteno’s team deter­mine what emo­tion they were actu­ally expe­ri­encing in the moment of the test. As expected, the people who recalled an expe­ri­ence of grat­i­tude were feeling more grateful than the rest and those who recalled a happy moment felt happier.

Finally, the par­tic­i­pants were asked to make 27 sep­a­rate choices about receiving a sum of money now or a larger sum in the future. And just as DeSteno and his team sus­pected, the group that felt grateful during the exper­i­ment required a larger amount of imme­diate cash than their peers to con­vince them to forego the larger future value.

DeSteno’s team believes this is the first study to show how cul­ti­vating an emo­tion can actu­ally lead to more patience.

DeSteno says:

If people get in a daily prac­tice of doing a grat­i­tude diary, it should but­tress their patience or impulse con­trol during the day. 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.