Gratitude is good for your soul ... and your finances

By Kristin Wong

Published: Thursday, May 22 2014 12:35 p.m. MDT

My brother would often drop pearls of wisdom, and I as the little brother would stop whatever I was doing and would bend down and pick them up. They were gems like, “Don’t get angry at the one person who can help you.”


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Editor's note: This article originally ran on the personal finance blog Get Rich Slowly. It has been reprinted here with permission.

I’ll admit it. When I lost work last year, a tiny sense of entitlement crept up on me.

OK, maybe it was more than tiny. On the outside, I told people: “I just feel like I deserve a good job, you know?” On the inside, I thought: 'Why the heck don’t I have a good job? I’m awesome.'

My awesomeness, however, is irrelevant. Sometimes these things just happen. They happen to a lot of people, and, despite kind words of encouragement, they don’t necessarily happen for any good reason. It’s funny — when bad things happen to me, I always tell myself that it’s only because something better can happen. It’s like I think I’m immune to obstacles or something. 'Oh, this can’t possibly be bad. Bad things don’t happen to me, I’m Kristin! It’s probably just something amazing in disguise.'

Convincing myself that “this happened for a reason” started to get depressing after three months, when absolutely nothing progressed. I felt fueled by entitlement, and it dragged me down. So I stopped. Instead, I kept working hard without expecting anything at all.

Sounds sad, right? It was actually the opposite. Hoping for everything and expecting nothing gave me a deep sense of gratitude. Life doesn’t entitle me to any perks, which is why I should be thankful that I have some pretty great ones. I have an awesome place to live. I have a loving and supportive partner and family. Even when I lost that job, I still had other work. (And now, I’m even more grateful to have an abundance of it.)

Life, I realized, is good. Beyond that, I also think that gratitude is a good financial habit. I’ll explain.

Impatience is costly

Researchers from Northwestern University, Harvard and the University of California wanted to conduct a study on instant gratification. In an abstract, these researchers wrote:

“The human mind tends to excessively discount the value of delayed rewards relative to immediate ones, with ‘hot’ affective processes believed to drive desires for short-term gratification.”

In short, people dig instant gratification. This usually backfires. Impatient investors, for example, can make unwise market decisions — like selling a poorly performing fund before they give it a chance to grow in the long term. CBS News reported on the study, too. As they put it:

“Whether it’s chasing the performance of last year’s hot funds, overspending on credit cards, or simply going for the immediate gratification that comes from spending today what you should have saved for tomorrow, literally hundreds of academic research papers say the same thing. The impatient individual costs himself a fortune.”

So we can all pretty much agree that impatience isn’t a desirable quality, especially when it comes to finance, right? Well, researchers wanted to go beyond verifying that. They wondered, what separates patient investors from impatient ones?

“Gratitude: A tool for reducing economic impatience”

The answer, they found, is gratitude. Gratitude is key to making better money decisions. For the experiment, they asked participants to write down a personal experience that was either 1) happy, 2) emotionally neutral, or 3) generated feelings of gratitude.

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