Be Grateful: It’s Good for Your Health

Northeastern study finds link between gratitude and patience.

If patience is a virtue, Bostonians aren’t the most virtuous lot. A population of sidewalk speeders, jaywalkers, and people who use the horn more than the turn signal, we could all use a little more patience in our lives. David DeSteno, a Northeastern University professor, is making that possible.

DeSteno, a researcher in the psychology department who specializes in the link between emotional response and behavior, says that the key to being calm, cool, and collected may be easier than you think—just stop and count your blessings.

“Gratitude induces people to engage in decisions and behaviors that benefit them long-term,” DeSteno explains. “What it does is it tends to make decisions more forward-looking, and it takes patience to do that.”

To demonstrate the connection between gratitude and patience, DeSteno and his team conducted a study that looked at the link between emotional responses and financial patience, using a classic economic bias to do so. “People tend to have this innate bias to discount future rewards,” DeSteno says. “Most people, if you ask them, ‘Would you rather have $50 today or $75 dollars in a month?,’ most people will say, ‘I’ll take the $50 today.'”

Using that principle, DeSteno and his team had participants picture an event that made them feel grateful, one that made them feel happy, and one that made them feel little to no emotion. Then, by asking the individuals how much money they would need right now to turn down more money at a later date, the researchers were able to calculate what’s called an Annual Discount Factor (ADF). They found that happy and neutral subjects had an average ADF of .18, meaning they would need $18 today to turn down $100 in a year. Those who felt grateful, however, had an ADF of .3, requiring $30 today to give up long-term financial gain and making them, DeSteno says, more patient than their counterparts.

While the study was directly related to financial patience, DeSteno says that the results could likely apply to any domain where there are decisions that involve long-term versus short-term tradeoffs—including health.

“We are getting ready to start some studies in the health arena,” DeSteno says. “So, if you make people feel grateful, will it help them resist impulses to binge eat or to eat unhealthy food, which is pleasurable in the moment, but  long term has consequences?” Other than eating, the theory could also apply to the idea of, say, forcing yourself off the couch, which is pleasurable in the moment, and into the gym, which benefits you moving forward.

And, he says, the correlation between gratitude and patience could have a strong impact on health because it requires little will power or even conscious decision making. “The benefit of the strategy is it’s an easy intervention to do,” he says. “Take a couple times a week and count your blessings, reflect on things. What that will do is it will automatically increase your patience by increasing the value you place on long-term reward.”

So next time you’re about to skip the gym, don’t rely on motivation—just count your blessings.