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

By Kristin Wong

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

After writing this down, subjects were asked to make a financial decision — receive $11-$80 right now or wait for a larger amount in the future. Researchers found that the happy and emotionally neutral subjects picked now; gratitude chose later. They concluded that “the emotion gratitude reduces impatience even with real money at stake.”

I know, these anthropological studies aren’t the be-all and end-all. But it makes sense: You’re satisfied with what you have now, so you’re not in a rush to have more. Your patience makes you prudent.

Implementation trumps optimism

For another article, I interviewed Leona Tam, Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Wollongong. She and a colleague authored a study titled “Saving in Cycles: How to Get People to Save More Money.”

Here’s the gist of it: They instructed people to save money for a set period of time, to report their savings at a later date. But before researchers sent the subjects on their way, they split them into three groups and gave them instructions:

  • Group 1: “Focus on the total amount of your savings goal for the future.”
  • Group 2: “Focus on saving the amount that you want to save now, not next month, not next year."
  • Group 3: Just do your thing (no instructions given).
Researchers called Group 1 “linear savers.” Group 2 were “cyclical savers.” In the context of the study, “cyclical” meant that things are the way they are — there’s no promise they’ll get better or worse. Surprisingly, despite not focusing on a goal, the cyclical people saved an average of 78 percent more than the linear savers.

That’s a big number. Overall, researchers suggested that a cyclical mindset made people think more tangibly and practically. In contrast, goals are abstract. They favor optimism over implementation.

I can think of one personal example that supports this: my not taking retirement seriously. When I was in my 20's, I was lucky to have an employer match. I didn’t take full advantage of it. I thought, “Oh, I’ll probably be rich when I’m older; I’ll focus on my retirement then.”

Goals are great. I love them. But it seems like focusing on what you already have yields better results.

This goes hand in hand with gratitude, focusing on what I have now instead of what I hope to have in the future. I’m not saying I shouldn’t have hopes for the future; it’s just about focus.

Be grateful, and strive for more

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have goals. We should have goals. We should work for bigger and better things. I plan to work my butt off and hope for the best. And no matter how thankful I am for a job, I’ll still ask for a raise. Don’t let your gratitude hold you back, either. What I’m saying is, I think it’s possible to have your eye on the prize while still being overwhelmed with gratitude for what you already have.

I want to make this clear: I’m not suggesting you don’t strive for great things. That is clear, right? Sorry to beat this point into the ground. But sometimes, my arguments get polarized, and it’s seriously frustrating. Like, I’ll say, “I love cats,” and people respond with, “Why do you hate dogs, though?” They’re not mutually exclusive. You feel me?

In short, I think gratitude can keep you on the right financial track. When you’re focused on and satisfied with the present, you can make more level-headed, practical decisions. And those decisions are usually better for the future.

Still, it’s difficult to lose something you care about, even if it’s just work. So it’s understandable that I wanted more. Maybe I was in denial a little. But ultimately, the lesson learned is not the lesson I expected to learn. I kind of thought that, when the dust settled, I’d report that it all happened for a grand reason to make way for something greater.

Instead, I’ve learned that sometimes, bad things happen. But good things happen, too, and I’m lucky that I’ve experienced more good than bad in my life. That fact alone should help me overcome any future feelings of entitlement.

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