Most religions have long stressed the virtue of daily expressions of gratitude to God. Now there is scientific evidence that this religious virtue may be crucial to reducing the impact of climate change on human societies.
From personal decisions about what and how much to eat or drink, to community wide decisions about climate change; the problem has always been that human minds tend to devalue future rewards compared to immediate rewards — a phenomenon that usually leads to favoring immediate gratification over long-term wellbeing.
As a consequence, patience and self discipline have long been recognized by all the major religions to be virtues.
Indeed, the inability to resist temptation and impulse underlies a host of problems ranging from credit card debt to unhealthy drinking, eating and drug addiction.
The prevailing view for reducing short term thinking and impatience has emphasized the use of willpower. Emotions should be tamped down or eliminated, in order to avoid irrational impulses for immediate gain.
In a potentially landmark study to be published in the journal Psychological Science, a team of researchers challenge the conventional view by demonstrating that feelings of gratitude automatically reduce immediate financial impatience.
Impatience was assessed using a set of decisions pitting the desire for instant gratification against waiting for larger, future rewards.
For example, participants chose between receiving $54 now or $80 in 30 days. To increase the stakes, participants actually had the chance to obtain one of the financial rewards they selected.
But before making these decisions, participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions in which they wrote about an event from their past that made them feel (a) grateful, (b) happy, or (c) neutral.
Although participants feeling neutral and happy showed a strong preference for immediate payouts, those feeling grateful showed more patience.
For example, just writing about an event that made them feel grateful led those people to require $63 immediately to forgo receiving $85 in three months, whereas neutral and happy people required only $55 to forgo the future gain.
What’s more, the degree of patience exhibited was directly related to the amount of gratitude any individual felt.
Positive feelings alone were not enough to enhance patience, as happy participants were just as impatient as those in the neutral condition.
The influence of gratitude, possibly due to its sense of a need to “pay back” in the future, was quite specific. The religious way of saying this is that all humans owe God for all the blessings we have received; and thus must behave in non selfish ways.
This scientific evidence that the emotion of gratitude fosters self-control opens up tremendous possibilities for reducing a wide range of societal ills from impulse buying to obesity and smoking, said one of the academic researchers, who has now learned something that religions have been teaching for thousands of years.