The Science of Gratitude and Why It’s Good for Your Wallet

By Eddie Schmid
November 24, 2016

As a kid, I couldn’t enjoy a gift for more than five minutes without my mom hounding me to write a thank-you note. It seemed every new sweater or Nintendo 64 game would be quickly followed by a fresh stack of blank thank-you cards. Very subtle, Ma. 

I resisted writing the notes as long as I could. Lots of my friends didn’t write them. Why should I? They seemed an artifact of a quaint bygone time. Can a dude just play GoldenEye in peace? Of course, those thank you cards did get written. And now I thank my mom for it.

Gratitude: a key to “psychological wealth”

“Psychological wealth” offers a holistic view of how we should evaluate our true net worth as individuals. It goes beyond just material resources and includes our attitudes toward life, relationships, health, and the activities in which we engage.  

According to science, my mom had some pretty good ideas. In writing a thank you note for my GoldenEye game, I was unknowingly building my psychological wealth by practicing gratitude. 

Gratitude enables us to evaluate key aspects of our psychological wealth such as our outlook on life and relationships. It puts us outside of ourselves, by acknowledging the forces and people that helped us got to where we are. Being grateful gives us a perspective that allows us to focus more of our attention outward.

Studies have shown that positive thinking in the form of gratitude also has a ripple effect on our well-being. It helps us feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve our health, deal with adversity, and build stronger relationships. Practiced deliberately and with care, studies show, gratitude greatly improves our levels of happiness.

Why gratitude is good for your wallet

The benefits of practicing gratitude also extend to your monetary wealth, too. David DeSteno, a psychology professor at Northeastern University, found that gratitude can lead us to be more patient. In the experiment, a group of participants were asked to think about something that made them feel grateful prior to being offered money, while others were just offered the money. Those who did not take time to reflect were more likely to accept the first amount offered.

In stopping to appreciate what is in front of us, we’re less prone to reward our impulses. Being grateful empowers us to resist the lure of short-term financial gratification. It makes us willing to hold out for future earnings and challenges us to recognize what we already have.

Admittedly, on paper, sitting down and saying “Okay, time to feel grateful!” may feel silly. But if you do actively choose to feel grateful, it strangely becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Gratitude softens even the hardest cynics.

Here are some tips to link your psychological and financial wealth, and thereby boost ‘em both:

Practicing gratitude: a how-to

Gratitude is about more than just a simple “thank you.” When it’s done as a reflex, it’s practically meaningless. True gratitude, the type that actually improves our well-being, involves an active, almost meditative experience on what we are thankful for.  

Dr. Martin Seligman, the former head of the American Psychological Association who focuses on gratitude as one of the key practices of “positive psychology” offers a few simple techniques to help you build your gratitude practice and make it a routine.

The “what-went-well exercise”
Every night for a week, Dr. Seligman says, set aside 10 minutes and write down three things that went well today. Ask yourself why they went well. It doesn’t have to be anything grandiose. Then, ask why each positive event happened. In other words: count your blessings, literally, on paper.

Why is this valuable? Dr. Seligman notes that modern people tend to think too much about what goes wrong and not enough about what goes right. By enumerating what went right, not only are you practicing gratitude, but you’re literally training your brain to look for the positive.

Thankfully, there are multiple smartphone apps that can help you kickstart this thankfulness ritual. The Bliss Gratitude Journal is free and one of our favorites. I prefer the old-fashioned pen and paper. All that matters is that you take the time to do it.

The gratitude visit
Close your eyes and imagine the face of someone who said or did something that changed your life in a positive way. Write a thank-you note to this person, then deliver it in person. Make the letter compact and specific about how that person affected you.

This “gratitude visit” is one of Dr. Seligman’s more famous methods for building psychological wealth.

Try this thank-you note exercise and you will not only please dear my mom—it’ll please you, and the recipient.

So now you’ve got the tools for gratitude. Not too tough, right? The trick will be to put them into practice. Once you get comfortable, you can use these to become more financially mindful, too.

How to be more “financially mindful”

Gratitude and mindfulness go hand-in-hand. In being grateful, we are more present and more positive which can have a direct impact on our financial lives, allowing us to counteract our desire for immediate rewards and appreciate what we already have. Here are some tips to help you be more financially mindful:

Stop and appreciate that paycheck.
Don’t think about why that direct deposit isn’t as high as your friend’s. Celebrate that it came in the first place. Stop and affirm yourself for having earned it.

Being “emotionally wealthy” also impacts how you work. According to Harvard-trained happiness researcher Shawn Achor, a more positive brain gives you a competitive advantage in the workplace. In fact, studies have shown that the brain performs at a higher level in a positive state which can increase productivity by 31 percent.

Practice “conscious consumption”
Yeah, shopping feels good. Hardly anyone raps about being financially responsible. If they did I probably wouldn’t listen to it.

Not so fast, say the folks in lab coats. Dr. Julian Ford, author of Hijacked by Your Brain, says that impulse spending comes from a place of stress, and an attempt to relieve it. So while those purchases may give you a temporary high, that credit card bill will have much longer effects.

Practicing conscious consumption forces you to evaluate the various trade-offs involved when spending money. Stop to consider what you truly need or what will bring lasting satisfaction. Then, cut costs relentlessly on everything else. For example, clothing is not as big of a priority for me as compared to travel. Anytime I feel the urge to pick up that commemorative concert tee, I divert my attention to planning my next getaway to Europe.

Easier said than done, right? That’s why you’ll need to build safeguards to protect yourself from moments of weakness. Start by acknowledging your impulse triggers. What stores or websites make you spend mindlessly? Avoid being lured in by promotional emails and sales. Just because it’s a “bargain” doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile.

Becoming financially mindful has helped me become more grateful for the things I do buy while helping me save money at the same time. Talk about a virtuous cycle.

Have I convinced you yet? Rad. You can send me a thank-note later.

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