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Gratitude is an enriching attitude

Key & Money

By Joel Dresang

At a family gift exchange when he was very young, my nephew Lee carefully asked who gave him each present. Then he thanked the giver profusely before even examining what he was about to open. He acted as though, sight unseen, each gift was exactly the only thing he had ever wanted.

Some grownup might have suggested that Lee show gratitude for what he got. But anyone who knows him today would not have doubted Lee’s sincerity. It was endearing.

It also was brilliant. Gratitude is powerful. Just a couple of decades ago, it was known as “the most-neglected emotion.” Now, a growing body of research attests that gratitude can help us be healthier, calmer, better rested, more accomplished — and even richer.

By just journaling personal moments of gratitude, by just writing thank-you notes (even if they’re never sent), we can become more aware of our relationships with others and our own personal worth.

Specifically for investors, gratitude can instill the patience needed for long-term payoffs. It can help stockholders dig in when they’re tempted to ditch their positions amid short-term sell-offs.

In a study published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers showed that gratitude motivates adults to delay gratification. Given the choice between an immediate cash reward or a larger ($100) payout a year later, grateful people held out longer. Those who tested as less grateful settled for an immediate offer of $18. Those who were more thankful held out until the deal reached $30.

“Gratitude reduces impatience even when real money is at stake,” wrote David DeSteno, a psychologist at Northeastern University and lead author of the paper.

Traditionally, emotions have been portrayed as deterrents to investors, who must summon willpower and discipline to overpower fear and greed. But DeSteno reasons that the emotion of gratitude generates the self-control necessary to stay rational amid short-term distractions.

Ways to grow gratitude, from Harvard Medical School:

  • Write a thank-you noteConvey your appreciation of another person in a letter or email. If possible, deliver and read it in person. Make such notes a monthly habit. Occasionally, write one to yourself.
  • Thank someone mentally. If you can’t write it or speak it, you still can benefit from just thanking someone in your head.
  • Keep a gratitude journal. Make a daily habit of writing down or sharing with a loved one whatever makes you grateful.
  • Count your blessings. Pick a time each week to write about what brings you gratitude. Be specific. Consider how each made you feel in the moment.
  • Pray. Meditate. Focus on what you’re grateful for.

“The reason we have emotions are to help us decide what to do next. When you are feeling an emotion, it’s altering the computations your brain is making, your predictions for the best course of action,” DeSteno said in an interview.

Fear and greed are temptations that can undermine your financial plans. Being thankful for your here and now allows you the patience to wait for payoffs down the road.

“When you feel those emotions, they change what your mind values,” DeSteno said. “It makes you value the long term more and what you find is that just makes it easier to persevere toward your goals and to control selfish temptations.”

Robert Emmons, an authority on gratitude at the University of California, Davis, explains that two main forces are behind the power of gratitude: It strengthens our awareness of our connectedness, and it raises our self-worth.

“The grateful person senses that much goodness happens independently of his actions or even in spite of himself,” Emmons writes. “Gratitude implies humility—a recognition that we could not be who we are or where we are in life without the contributions of others.”

A few years ago, I wrote letters to a couple dozen people, spanning decades of my life, to express my thanks for their influence. Though I intended it as a writing exercise, I see now how much it steadied me to make note of those relationships. Not long before I started the letters, I had lost my mom and a brother. Another brother died that year. The letter writing showed me I still had people who could receive my gratitude.

“I’ve concluded that gratitude is one of the few attitudes that can measurably change peoples’ lives,” Emmons writes.

Clearly, gratitude has benefits beyond settling skittish investors.

“If you build a habit to cultivate gratitude,” DeSteno said in the interview, “it’s going to play out in many different domains. Domains of exercise, domains of health, domains of dieting, domains of saving money, domains of studying. Any time that it requires you to value the future more than the present.”

Alex Korb, who researches gratitude as a neuroscientist at UCLA, adds to the list.

“Research studies have shown that practicing gratitude can make you feel happier, lower your stress, and even give you a better night’s sleep,” Korb wrote. “But these effects aren’t just spiritual or psychological, they’re rooted in your brain’s biology.”

Other Money Talk articles from Joel Dresang

Of course, the year-end holidays, starting with Thanksgiving, tend to be when Americans most prominently display gratitude, but DeSteno and Korb suggest that’s not enough.

“I often say gratitude is wasted on Thanksgiving,” DeSteno said. “It’s not that it’s a bad thing, but what I mean is really the benefits of gratitude are important on all the other days of the year when we need to delay our gratification to gain our future goals.

“So, yes, it’s important on Thanksgiving, but what you want to do is cultivate it more regularly on the other days because by doing that, you’ll ensure that when Thanksgiving comes next year, you will have more to be grateful for.”

Korb agrees that being thankful shouldn’t be confined to an annual holiday.

“Gratitude takes practice like any other skill. Thanksgiving Day is a good time to start,” Korb wrote in Psychology Today, “but if you want to reap all the benefits, keep practicing after that.”

And if, in your holiday viewings, you catch Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney crooning “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep,” keep in mind that Irving Berlin is said to have based the song on his doctor’s prescription for insomnia.

Joel Dresang is vice president-communications at Landaas & Company.

Learn more
Good things come to investors who wait, by Joel Dresang
The importance of humility in investing, a Money Talk Video with Art Rothschild
Why investments outperform their investors, a Money Talk Video with Kyle Tetting
Investment lessons from the last downturn, a Money Talk Video with Steve Giles
Market Volatility: Check Your Emotions at the Doorfrom the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority
(initially posted Nov. 23, 2022)

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