Where Gratitude Gets You

Many of us struggle with self-control.  And we assume willpower is the key to achieving our goals. But there’s a simple and often overlooked mental habit that can improve our health and well-being. This week on Hidden Brain, we explore that habit — the practice of gratitude. 

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. For generations, across nations and cultures, parents and teachers have read Aesop's fable, The Ant and the Grasshopper. It teaches children the importance of hard work and delayed gratification.

David DeSteno: It was a beautiful summer and the grasshopper wiled away its time dancing and frolicking with its friends.

Shankar Vedantam: This is psychologist David DeSteno.

David DeSteno: While the ant went out to the fields and toiled to grow and to harvest food for the winter.

Shankar Vedantam: "Why don't you stop working so hard and come play?" the grasshopper asked. The ant replied, "I can't. I have to collect food for the winter. You should too. Otherwise, you won't have anything to eat when it gets cold." The grasshopper just laughed and kept playing.

David DeSteno: When winter came, the poor grasshopper had nothing to eat and starved. The ant, who had worked all summer, had a wonderful winter snug in his den and had ample food to live on.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, the story has a harsh moral to it. The ant, who refuses to share, comes across as mean-spirited, but the underlying message of the story is one we all wrestle with. All of us have something of the ant inside us and all of us have the grasshopper too. Study for the test, or play video games? Exercise regularly, or relax on the couch? Save money for retirement, or spend it on something you want right now? This week on Hidden Brain, we explore the importance and limitations of self-control and we examine how a habit that is within easy reach can help us achieve our goals. That overlooked habit? The practice of gratitude.

Shankar Vedantam: David DeSteno is a psychologist at Northeastern University. He studies how we can enlist emotions to become better people. Better to others, better to ourselves. Some of David's ideas grow out of the story of The Ant and the Grasshopper, and also a psychological experiment conducted 50 years ago by Walter Mischel at Stanford University. It's an experiment you've probably heard of, it was called the marshmallow test.

David DeSteno: The way the test would work is Mischel or one of his research assistants would bring in a child and they'd sit them down at a table.

Speaker 4: What is that?

David DeSteno: They'd put down a marshmallow or other sweet in front of them and say,

Speaker 5: You can either eat this marshmallow now or wait until we come back and you'll get two.

David DeSteno: And they left and what they would do is wait and see -

Speaker 6: Please come back.

Speaker 3: If the child was able to engage in self-control. And there has been video since that time, reproductions of this and it's wonderful if you watch, you can see the kids peeking through their hands.

Speaker 7: I wonder what's taking him so long?

David DeSteno: You can hear the gears in their minds turning to try and resist.

Speaker 8: And I smelled the marshmallow. I thought I would eat it, but I didn't.

David DeSteno: What he found, right, is that over time, the kids who were able to resist, to have the self-control to not gobble the first marshmallow, had better academic and social outcomes in many domains.

Shankar Vedantam: So there have been concerns that have been raised about the marshmallow test. Some have pointed out that the kids that Walter Mischel studied came from a very narrow and privileged slice of American society. But the central idea of the importance of self-control, we know that, not just from Aesop's fable, but from our lives. We know that it matters when it comes to doing well in school or learning to play a musical instrument or learning to play a sport or saving for retirement, eating healthy, getting exercise. Doing well in all these domains comes down to the same question as Walter Mischel was asking these kids: can you do the difficult thing now in exchange for a reward that is down the road.

David DeSteno: Exactly. It's saving for retirement, it's eating and exercising and true, there are some socioeconomic differences. So if you grew up in a culture where you weren't sure that the future was going to be a beneficial one, then why sacrifice for it? But in general as you're saying, there is just ample evidence that sacrifice in the short term in many domains of life is required for future success. Giving into temptation for immediate gratification often leads to problems.

Shankar Vedantam: You ran a version of the marshmallow test with adults. You gave them a choice between pleasure now versus a bigger reward later, but you decided not to use marshmallows but something else. How did you run this experiment, and what did you find in terms of people's ability to hold off on a reward until a later date?

David DeSteno: Yeah. That's true. Most adults don't like marshmallows but all of us like cash, and so we ran an analog to the marshmallow test where we replaced marshmallows with money. The way the experiment worked is, people would come in and we would have them answer a series of questions of the form, "Would you rather have x dollars now or y dollars in z days, where y was always greater than x and z varied over days to weeks to months." From that, we were able to extrapolate a sense of impatience or a lack of self-control. What we found was the basic result was people were pretty impatient. People were willing, as an example, to accept $17 now and forgo $100 in a year. So another way of saying this Shankar is, "I guarantee you $100 in a year, but would you be willing to give that up if I gave you $17 now?" I don't know about you, but given what the banks are paying, unless you need that $17 to survive, giving up the opportunity to quintuple your money in a year is a pretty foolish financial investment, but that's what our subjects said.

Shankar Vedantam: So, when we tell people to exercise self-control to do the hard thing now and get the payoff later, we usually ask them to exercise willpower. You cite the children's television show Sesame Street and specifically the character Cookie Monster who regularly has to confront temptations.

Cookie Monster: (singing)

Shankar Vedantam: Describe this model of self-control to me, David. What does it ask us to do?

David DeSteno: Yeah, who better to talk about self-control or teach it than the walking talking id himself.

Cookie Monster: Cookie!

David DeSteno: In that season of Sesame Street, Cookie Monster basically was teaching the model that has been in existence in psychology for decades and in philosophy long before that, which was our emotions lead us astray, and the way to persevere toward your goal or to delay gratification or resist temptations is to either rely on your willpower to tell you why you shouldn't do this. And so we see Cookie Monster using willpower or to use kind of tricks like to distract yourself, that we see Cookie Monster kind of covering his eyes or looking away.

Cookie Monster: (singing)

David DeSteno: But unlike Cookie Monster, most of us kind of don't do very well at this. If you look at the stats on average, about 20% of the time people are trying to resist a temptation, they give in to it. For things that are difficult and important it's even worse. If you look at New Year's resolutions, 8% of them are kept to the year's end, 25% of them are gone by mid-January, and so if this strategy of relying on kind of logic and willpower was the best that we had to offer, it's pretty poor because we're failing.

Cookie Monster: Okay. Me waited long enough.

Shankar Vedantam: Most of us think of self-control in the context of personal goals, things like health or exercise, David, but you also need self-control to be a good person, to act with integrity. You once conducted an experiment that tested the relationship between self-control and people's willingness to act with integrity. You asked volunteers to choose between a difficult task and an easy task, using the equivalent of a coin flip. Can you describe the experimental setup to me?

David DeSteno: Sure. Subjects would come in and we told them there were two tasks that needed to be done, a long and onerous one or a short and fun one, and then we gave them the opportunity to flip a coin to decide what they were going to do. If you ask people what should you do, people will say, "Well of course you should follow what the coin says." It's the only time we get kind of unanimity in a psychological study that I've ever seen. Yet the vast majority of people, when they believe they're alone and no one can see what they're choosing, either don't flip the coin and just give themselves the easy task or they flip the coin, get the wrong answer because of course we have rigged the coin so that it comes up such that they should do the hard task that's a virtual coin. I keep flipping it until it comes up with the answer they want.

Shankar Vedantam: What were these two tasks David? What was the difficult task that people wanted to avoid?

David DeSteno: Sure. The difficult task was presented as a series of 45 minutes of long and onerous logic problems, so things that you might have to do on like the GRE or the SAT, and the short task was [inaudible 00:10:04] about 10 minutes, it's a fun image hunt on a computer screen.

Shankar Vedantam: I see. So you found I think upwards of 90% of your volunteers succumbed to the temptation of cheating?

David DeSteno: We did. Yes, we did. These were normal people, just like you and me, but in those moments where we think we can get away with something, people will. But the most interesting part about it was when you asked them later how fairly did they act, most of them just created a story for why it was okay for them to do that this time. "Oh, I really didn't want to be late for something." My favorite story was, and I kid you not, they said, one person said to me, "Well, the guy who was sitting out in the hall who I thought was going to be coming next, he looked like an engineering major and I thought he would like the logic problem."

David DeSteno: The tricky part about this, right, is if we're willing to rationalize away our need for self-control, then we're not going to try and exert willpower in the first place. We're going to say, "I deserve to spend money on the new smartphone. I deserve the extra piece of chocolate cake."

Shankar Vedantam: Movies and TV shows have explored the idea of why we give in to temptation. The cartoon character Homer Simpson is a personification of this idea.

Homer Simpson: Donuts. Is there anything they can't do?

Speaker 11: Dad, you're a hero.

Shankar Vedantam: Homer Simpson knows he needs to resist junk food, but he just can't do it. David says this idea, that our emotions often get the better of us, this is the way most of us understand why willpower fails.

David DeSteno: There is this idea that's been around since the time of Spinoza or before where people look at the passions, at their emotions as something that wants immediate gratification, and sure we experience it that way at times, we can feel desire or lust or anger, things that make us want to do things in the moment, and there's this idea that we have to rely on kind of our rational thought processes to kind of change our view of what we should value and to tamp down those cravings. That requires self-control to do the right thing.

Shankar Vedantam: Now there's been other work that shows that fighting your desires, fighting your temptations with willpower, it's not just difficult but it's actually stressful, right?

David DeSteno: It is. If you think about it, your body is in a state of stress. Part of you is wanting to give in to whatever the temptation is for short-term pleasure and part of you is trying to overrule that sense of desire and so when you're trying to come back in and exert executive control, which is a fancy word we psychologists use for trying to overrule kind of our more intuitive responses, your brain feels like ... And I'm not saying this is what's going on in the circuitry, of course, but it feels like you're in a battle. And that results in stress. There is great work by a psychologist Gregory Miller at Northwestern and he was trying to work with kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, showing them, teaching them executive control strategies. And over time, yes, those strategies worked, but the stress level that those children and adolescents were under began to manifest itself physically.

David DeSteno: So if you kind of expand that out, the upshot is yes, if you're always trying to exert self-control, you can achieve your goals, but your health is going to suffer. You're not going to be around as long to enjoy the fruits of that.

Shankar Vedantam: You also cite a study by Christopher Boyce about people who in fact are very good at exercising willpower but what happens to them when they fail. Do you remember that study, David?

David DeSteno: Yeah. So this was a study looking at the trait of conscientiousness, which is the ability to kind of put your nose to the grindstone and persevere in pursuing your goals. People who do that, yes they succeed, but when they do fail, and they do fail less because they're working really hard, but when they fail, what he shows is the hit to their well-being is 120% greater than the rest of us. Although the data doesn't show exactly why that is in that study, personally I believe that one reason that is is because these individuals haven't been focused on cultivating the social relationships that are there to catch us when we fall and to make us more resilient.

Shankar Vedantam: Psychologist David DeSteno argues that the model we have, that willpower is the key to self-control, and that our emotions often undermine us, this model misses something crucial. Emotions might not be the enemy. In fact, some emotions can play a powerful role in generating self-control. How? That's when we come back. You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Think back to the last time you made a resolution and failed. Maybe the resolution was to get your finances in order or to exercise more. Maybe it was to eat healthy. You even made a list of all the reasons you should order more salads. But those reasons failed you when you smelled French fries at the next table. Your emotions got the better of you. Many of us see our emotions as the enemy when it comes to carrying out our resolutions, but we often forget something. Emotions can also be enormously constructive and powerful.

Shankar Vedantam: David, it might make sense to back up and see the big picture for a moment. Many of us think that something makes us angry so we feel angry, something makes us sad so we feel sad, something makes us happy so we feel happy. We think emotions are about looking back, at reacting to the past. You say there's something wrong with this picture. What is it?

David DeSteno: Yeah. Emotions are not about the past. They are about the future and what I mean by that is if you even just think about the brain metabolically, what good would it be to have a response that is only relevant to things that have happened before? The reason we have emotions are to help us decide what to do next. When you are feeling an emotion, it's altering the computations your brain is making, your predictions for the best course of action.

Shankar Vedantam: Some years ago you started to explore an interesting idea. If emotions are a mechanism to help us navigate the future, not just an accounting system to tabulate the past, that might explain why some emotions seem to help us do difficult things. You tell the story in your book of one of your students who would wake up early each morning to go rowing on the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. What did she tell you?

David DeSteno: Yeah. This was my student Lisa Williams, who is now a professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia and she told me it was very difficult to wake up before the sun rises and to go out in the cold damp of the Pacific Northwest and to get on the Columbia River and row. But she felt pride for being accepted onto the rowing team and pride for how well her team was doing, and not wanting to let her team down. And so it was that sense of pride for the accomplishments they made each day and the anticipated pride for what was going to come next that helped her do these difficult things, that helped her get up at a morning when many of us might just want to roll over and hit the alarm for snooze. It's because sometimes we do hard things because we think we should, but I think more often than not we do hard things because we feel we should. Emotions are a source, a huge source of motivation.

Shankar Vedantam: So this is an example of how emotions can help us meet our resolutions rather than undermine our resolutions. So rather than see all emotions as the enemy of reaching our goals, you started to ask if some emotions could in fact help us reach our goals.

David DeSteno: That's right.

Shankar Vedantam: In the case of the student it was the pride she felt being part of the team and not pride at the level of arrogance or hubris, but taking delight in a job well done, in team work.

David DeSteno: That's exactly right.

Shankar Vedantam: So you decided to explore how emotions might shape self-control and long-term decision-making. You gave adult volunteers the grown-up version of the marshmallow test, the one that used money, but this time there was a twist. You mentioned differences between people in terms of how much they experienced the emotion of gratitude. Was there a correlation between gratitude and people's ability to delay gratification?

David DeSteno: There was. What we found was when they were feeling grateful when they were making these decisions, because they had just reflected on something that they were grateful for, it basically doubled their self-control. Suddenly, they weren't willing to give up $100 in a year for $17 now. It would take about $31 for them to do this. But the important thing was to show that it wasn't just that we were distracting them or it wasn't anything about just feeling good. When people were feeling happy, we asked them to describe something that they thought was funny and amusing. They were the same as people who were neutral. It was $17. So what this tells us is that when you feel gratitude, it alters the computations your brain is making about how valuable a future goal is.

Shankar Vedantam: I mean what's interesting of course is that you are not actually telling people anything about self-control here. You're not telling them, "Here's the right thing to do, exercise willpower. Here's the rational thing to do." You're just asking them to reflect on something they felt grateful for, maybe someone in their life who was good to them or a colleague or a mentor who had helped them, and this indirectly seemed to change the way they thought about the present and thought about the future.

David DeSteno: That's exactly right. Emotions set our expectations for how we should react in any given situation we're in. And so simply by making people feel grateful, it alters the way their brain assigned value as a function of time. Suddenly rewards that were delayed, that were further in the future, seemed more attractive than they normally would, without them having to engage in any type of corrective strategy to kind of make themselves or will themselves to see the logic of that.

Shankar Vedantam: Now you wanted a stronger test of the idea that there was a connection between gratitude and long-term thinking. And rather than simply have people remember a time when they felt grateful, you artificially induced them to feel grateful. Now that's not very easy to do in a lab and you came up with a rather, I would say cruel way to engineer gratitude. How did you do it, David?

David DeSteno: The way it worked is you would come to the lab and you would sit in front of the computer and you spent about 15, 20 minutes doing this god awful task and it was designed to be god awful and boring and hard and right at the end, when the experimenter said they were going to come in and record your score that would have been put on the computer screen, we rigged the computer to look like it crashed. So when it crashed, the subjects would be like, "Oh my goodness. Oh this is terrible," and the experimenter would come in and say, "Oh. This has happened once before. Let me go the tech. You're going to have to do this all over," and of course they were not happy.

David DeSteno: We also had in the room another person who was a confederate, which means they were an actor working for the experimenters. But the participants thought they were just another person in the experiment. This confederate would get up and say, "Oh. I have to leave, I'm running late, but this is really terrible. I'm pretty good with computers. Let me see if I can help you." So she would start futzing with the computer and she would hit a button surreptitiously that would start a countdown and then suddenly the computer would come back on, and 95% of our participants were so grateful that they didn't have to do this task over again, 5% were convinced they fixed it themselves somehow, but they were really, really, really grateful for this. That's the way we kind of induced gratitude in real time.

Shankar Vedantam: So when you induce gratitude in this manner, David, do you see that it changes people's ability to think about the future differently?

David DeSteno: Yeah. So what we find when we use this paradigm and we used it several times, is it makes people more willing to pay it forward. That is it makes them more willing to ... We'll have them leave the lab and go out and suddenly somebody who's another actor will come up to them and ask them for help, and if they're feeling gratitude, they're more willing to help this person. Other times when they're engaged in financial decisions with other people, they'll make decisions that are a little costly to them but benefit those around them, so they're more willing to share profits than take profits selfishly. All of these kind of bring us back to the point I want to make which is we're seeing people who are willing to sacrifice in the moment to help other people, to give them more money, to do things that don't benefit them in the moment, but that we know from every evolutionary model out there brings gains down the line. So by willing to sacrifice now, what you're doing is making sure that when you need help in the future, there are going to be people who will pay you back and by cementing those relationships, you're going to have a lot of aggregated gains over time even though in the moment it's kind of costly to you.

Shankar Vedantam: All of us have felt in some ways in real life what people experienced in the experiment. Someone goes out of their way to help us and you feel this sudden rush of gratitude. It almost feels like something physical. You once had the experience of a colleague going above and beyond when your family was expecting a child. Tell me what she did and what happened, David.

David DeSteno: Yeah. We had just been at my new job at Northeastern for a year or two and we were expecting our first daughter and we went to this ... What we thought was kind of just an end of the year celebration. It turned out that it was a surprise baby shower for us, which was just heartwarming, and one of my colleagues gave to my wife and I this beautiful baby quilt that she had handmade. And in that moment, I had the exact experience that you're saying, Shankar. I just felt this welling up of emotion. Sometimes we get gifts and we're like, "Oh great. Now I have to give you something." This wasn't that. This was like, "Oh my goodness," and in that moment, my heart just felt like it was warming and swelling and what it did is it made me feel really valued by this person.

David DeSteno: So much so that it made me think of our relationship in a whole different way. It made me feel in some ways bonded to her and to want to go move forward and do things for her and that's the beauty of gratitude, right? It is the sense that someone went out of their way to do something that was costly to them. Not always financially, it could be time, it could be just care, but it's a mark that they value you and that's what cements relationships and makes you want to pay it back, and suddenly you're in this upward spiral of building relationships.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to just dwell for a second on the point that you just made David, which is, it's not always the most expensive thing that generates gratitude. If your colleague had gone out and bought you something worth several hundred dollars, that would have been an extravagant gift but in some ways it was the personal effort that she put it into the quilt, making the quilt that communicated to you, this person is someone who really cares about me, I'm truly grateful, and I feel like in some ways reciprocating or spreading this to other people.

David DeSteno: That's right, and if you think about it, the argument that I always make is self-control didn't evolve so that we could save for retirement and get good grades. Self-control evolved so that we would have good character, that we would be fair, that we would cooperate, that other people would want to work with us. And sure, now we can pivot it so that instead of sacrificing to help someone else I can sacrifice to help my own future self, but the origin is really one of morality and that's why we look at emotions like gratitude and compassion as virtues. Shankar, if you gave me $10 right now and I didn't pay you back, I would be ahead, but if I don't pay you back or if you help me move my furniture and you need help moving yours, if I don't come and sacrifice to pay you back, that relationship is now going to end and I'll lose all of those gains going forward. So it is a sacrifice in the moment for future benefit.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering when ... When you received this wonderful, heartwarming gift from your colleague, whether you made a direct connection to the research that you were doing. Was this in some ways like an aha moment for you?

David DeSteno: Yeah. In psychology there has been a lot of work on ordinary emotions, things like fear and anger, but not on these more socially oriented ones and because of that experience and how powerful it was, it was just another push for me to say, "There's something important here that we need to investigate."

Shankar Vedantam: You cite a study by Robert Emmons on the role that expressing gratitude has on stress. Do you remember what he did and what he found?

David DeSteno: I do. This was a great study because it was an experiment that was actually done in the field so to speak. Emmons would ask a certain percentage of his subjects to engage in daily gratitude reflection, so he was making them basically count their blessings as kind of an experimental intervention. What he found is that over time, the individuals who did this reported that they were better able to engage in exercise, again a type of sacrifice in the moment for future gain. They reported better quality of their relationships. They reported less symptoms of illness and so taken together what this kind of signifies to me is that practicing gratitude is enhancing people's well-being and kind of reducing the stress that comes from illness or feelings of loneliness or disconnection.

Shankar Vedantam: You also cite a study by Wendy Mendes I believe at the University of California at San Francisco looking at the relationship between gratitude and stress, or at least how gratitude can buffer the effects of stress.

David DeSteno: Yeah. So Wendy did this really interesting study where she used a technique called the Trier of Social Stress measure, which is used in psychology a lot, and think about it like this: pretend you're going for a job interview and you're going to stand up in front of three people and kind of give a little speech. The people are instructed to be very stone-faced, to give no feedback and you can imagine if you're doing this, and you see no smiles, it's not a very rewarding experience and it causes a spiral of stress and that's been shown many times.

David DeSteno: What Wendy found was that individuals who were regularly more grateful in their life, individuals who practiced more gratitude and in some ways what that basically is is it's an intervention, right? People who are daily thinking about feeling grateful, cultivating it in their lives. She found it was basically like a booster shot for stress reduction.

Shankar Vedantam: What's remarkable here is that the effect seems almost effortless, right? So if I induce gratitude on myself, it's almost like I've made the task easier. It's not like I'm actually working harder to accomplish the task.

David DeSteno: That's right. It's not building your self-control by giving you more willpower. It's basically working from the bottom up by changing what you value and if you value something more than you normally would, if you value a future reward, your future health, your future savings, doing the right thing for your friends more than you normally would, then it just becomes easier to persevere toward it.

David DeSteno: There's a lot of work these days on habits, right? Build a habit so that you can achieve your goals. Study more, build a habit to save and that's true but the problem with most habits is they're focused on one narrow outcome. If I build a habit to study more, it's not going to help me save money. But if you build a habit to cultivate gratitude, it's going to play out in many different domains. Domains of exercise, domains of health, domains of dieting, domains of saving money, domains of studying. Any time that it requires you to value the future more than the present.

Shankar Vedantam: You say that many Americans miss the point when it comes to a festival like Thanksgiving, David. Most people think it's merely a chance to express gratitude for close friends and family. Keeping in mind what you just told me, that in some ways gratitude has this superpower, if you will, to affect many dimensions of your life, what are we getting wrong when we think about Thanksgiving merely as an occasion to look back and merely as an occasion to recognize those closest to us?

David DeSteno: Yeah. People get angry at me when I say this, so don't get angry Shankar, but I often say gratitude is wasted on Thanksgiving. It's not that it's a bad thing, but what I mean is really the benefits of gratitude are important on all the other days of the year when we need to delay our gratification to gain our future goals. So, yes, it's important on Thanksgiving but what you want to do is cultivate it more regularly on the other days because by doing that, you'll ensure that when Thanksgiving comes next year, you will have more to be grateful for.

Shankar Vedantam: Many years ago when you were a kid, you had the experience of having conflicts with your dad, which is of course exactly like every other child in the history of the world. But tell me about the conflict that you had with him and how you've come to think about that conflict in more recent times.

David DeSteno: Yeah. So when I was an early teen, my dad decided that every summer I should engage in some type of academic activity. I had just finished a year of school and I did not want to go and do an academic activity during the summer, I wanted to have fun, play sports with my friends or do anything. So he would put me in a computer camp or something like this, and it would cause strife because I would get annoyed. Like, "Dad, why do I have to do this?" But later on I realized that his doing this was his way of trying to ensure that more doors would be open to me in the future. My family, I came from a background that was very humble in terms of educational background and in terms of economic background. I'm a first-generation college student and he felt so strongly about this that he was willing to put up with my kvetching about it and not wanting to do it. But more than that I also found out that because we were from such humble financial backgrounds, he went to other members of our family and asked for help for money so that he could provide me with these opportunities.

David DeSteno: So I wasn't grateful for it at the time, but when looking back on it, when I learned about this and I saw it as a parent myself, I became incredibly grateful.

David DeSteno: So Buddhists talk about the difference between true compassion and idiot compassion and idiot compassion is doing something that allows somebody to feel good in the moment and happy in the moment, even though it's not good for their future outcomes. Wise compassion is helping them to do things that are hard in the moment even if they don't want to do it, and because my dad had that wise compassion at the time and was willing to put up with my arguing, it led to something that I'm much more grateful for in the future.

Shankar Vedantam: It's a little sad though, isn't it? Which is that if we could remind ourselves to be more grateful to people in the moment, even when it seems as if they are working at cross-purposes with us, presumably a) it would help us see the value of what it is they are telling us, which is a good thing in and of itself, and second, it probably would bind us to them more closely than it would otherwise.

David DeSteno: Both of those are true, and that's why I think there's not an emphasis on gratitude, I think, anymore in terms of when kids are growing up as much as there used to be traditionally. And I think to the extent that we encourage people, young or old, to think more about what other people are doing for them and how what their intent is and to see opportunities for gratitude. The more we look for those opportunities to feel it, the more we're increasing the opportunity to cultivate it in our own lives.

Shankar Vedantam: Did you ever have a chance to thank your dad, David?

David DeSteno: I did. I did later on. I wish that I had been more aware at the time but such is the wisdom of age, right?

Shankar Vedantam: When we come back, is feeling grateful just something you feel? Or is it something you can learn to do?

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Our emotions are extremely powerful. There are times when they can lead us astray and cause us to undermine our own long-term goals. But just because some emotions cause us to become shortsighted, that doesn't mean all emotions cause to be impetuous. Some emotions, in fact, seem to help us focus on our long-term interests. They can help us exercise more, eat healthier, and save more wisely.

Shankar Vedantam: David, a lot of your work is published in modern peer-reviewed psychology journals but the ideas you're talking about feel really ancient to me. Many cultural and spiritual traditions around the world celebrate the idea of pausing to give thanks. You mentioned in our earlier conversation just the idea of counting your blessings. It seems to me that many of those traditions are arriving at the same underlying idea as the psychological studies, right?

David DeSteno: That's right. It's funny you should mention that. I'm working on my next book, which is called How God Works, and it is basically looking at ancient practices and rituals and advice from religions and kind of evaluating them in a scientific framework.

Speaker 12: (singing)

Speaker 13: (singing)

Speaker 14: Bless us oh Lord and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty.

David DeSteno: What I found time and time again is that some of these ancient practices, like prayers for giving thanks, even families saying grace regularly before they eat dinner and giving thanks, those are ways that are presented theologically, but what they actually are are actually kind of beautiful nudges to the mind. And what we see is that even maybe though the religious leaders didn't understand the science of why these things worked, they could see the outcomes, and I think there's a lot of evidence for that.

David DeSteno: What we're finding time and again is that being grateful, engaging in compassion, these lead to long term benefits for people in terms of their physical and mental well-being.

Shankar Vedantam: You've been particularly interested in a group of people who appear to have superpowers when it comes to delaying gratification. They can go long periods without food and water, they're adept at placing the interests of others before themselves. Tell me about the connection you saw between your psychological research and Buddhist monks.

David DeSteno: Yeah, so when we first started studying self-control and what role emotions play in it, I also had another group of students who were studying mindfulness meditation, and I thought, "Well who knows more about delaying gratification and cravings and not being attached to these things than Buddhist monks?" So I spent time talking to the Buddhist monks and one high ranking one told me that he said, "You know, when monks first take their vows to be chaste and to not drink alcohol et cetera and to not gamble," he said, "They fail just like everybody else." What he said is, "Over time, through meditation, what happens is it begins to unleash these feelings of compassion. [inaudible 00:37:58] once that compassion starts to be unleashed, resisting temptation becomes much easier," and it's similar to the idea that I was talking about with gratitude. When you feel those emotions, they change what your mind values. It makes you value the long term more and what you find is that just makes it easier to persevere toward your goals and to control selfish temptations.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, it's one thing to say that this is true for people who have practiced very difficult meditation techniques for years on end. But I understand that you have studied with the novices, people who know very little or nothing about meditation, can learn these practices. Can you tell me about the study you conducted along these lines in Boston?

David DeSteno: Yeah. So we believe that after a few weeks, we might be able to see some changes. So we invited people who had never meditated before from the Boston community to come to our lab and we collaborated with the Buddhist lama who was going to teach them meditative techniques. So half of them came to the lab for eight weeks of meditation and then she created MP3s that they could take home for their daily practice, and there were another bunch of people who were put on the waiting list, so they received no training at all. After that was done, we told them, "Come back to the lab after these eight weeks. We want to measure how meditation affected your memory and your ability to engage in certain types of cognitive activities," which seems kind of straightforward, there's a lot of work on how meditation affects memory. But the real experiment took place in the waiting room. So when they came to our lab, there was a waiting room of three chairs and two people were already sitting in the chairs, these were confederates or actors who worked for us. Then came in the subjects, what did they do? Well they sat in the third chair, waiting to be called.

David DeSteno: About two minutes later, we had another actor come down the hall and enter the waiting room. She didn't really have a broken foot but she was on crutches wearing one of those boots that you wear when your foot is broken, wincing in pain, and she came into the room and there were no chairs left for her and so she basically just kind of winced and let out a little painful sigh of discomfort and leaned against the wall. Our two other actors were told to ignore her and so the question was what would the subject do, would he or she be willing to sacrifice his or her immediate comfort by getting up, seeing if he could help this person offering his seat to her, or would he ignore her like everybody else did?

David DeSteno: What we found was, in the conditions among the non-meditators about 16% of people did this, they got up and offered their seat and see if they could help this person. But among the meditators, it jumped to 50%, would immediately get up and offer their seat to this person, see if they could give her anything and we've replicated this finding so it's not just kind of a one-off thing.

Shankar Vedantam: So one thing this experiment suggests to me is that it might be better to think of gratitude as a skill rather than as a trait or just simply an emotion, something that just pops up unbidden in our hearts.

David DeSteno: That's right. We have this idea of emotional intelligence has been kind of percolating for the past decade or more in U.S. culture, and there are several parts to it. One is can you read another person's emotion to know what they're feeling? One is can you kind of keep calm so you're not disruptive, the schools often use this when they're worried about keeping little Johnny quiet in class so he's not a disruption. But there's a third part that people forget about, and that third part of emotional intelligence is learning how to use your emotions as tools or as skills to achieve your goals, and that's exactly what we're talking about. Emotions are tools that you can cultivate in your life. When you meditate, you're building an automatic response to feel compassion more regularly. When you count your blessings daily, you're engaging in an activity, you're curating your emotional states, you're making yourself feel more grateful.

Shankar Vedantam: There are periodically stories that you see on local television, David, that are along the lines of this one. Take a listen.

Speaker 15: Barista Logan Norris was working the Starbucks window at 9 a.m. when a customer offered to buy coffee for the strangers in the car behind him.

Logan Norris: It started out by someone just came up and they wanted to do exactly that and just pay it forward, and it just kept going on.

Speaker 15: So how many cars participated?

Speaker 17: That was just about 30 more that went through. I know we're at least up to 160.

Shankar Vedantam: Talk about this idea, David. You've mentioned it briefly in the past, the idea that emotions such as gratitude are fundamentally contagious, that as you see them, you have a strong impulse to be part of this, as you call it, this virtuous cycle.

David DeSteno: Yeah. I mean that's one of the ... So, all emotions are catchy. We're more likely to feel them if I'm sitting next to someone who's anxious, that anxiety can rub off on me. But gratitude has kind of this added element. That is, it makes you want to pay it forward, and we found that in our own experiments when people leave the lab and a stranger comes up to them, they are more willing to help them and you see it time and again, like it's at toll booths or at Starbucks, people do this, and it drives economists crazy, because from a purely self-interested standpoint, "Hey, that guy just bought me something. I am ahead. Why aren't I just taking my extra benefit and running?" It's because it's built into us, this idea that if we cooperate with one another, we get gains down the line. If we pay it forward, those gains come back to us and in all the evolutionary models, that is true. Gratitude is a device to make us willing to do that. So there's wonderful work by a psychologist Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton that show giving is perceived in the brain as pleasure. But when we have gratitude, it even amps that up even more. It makes it even more pleasurable, it makes us more willing to do it and it builds these cycles of cooperation in amazing ways, in ways that don't seem to make logical sense but feel really rewarding.

Shankar Vedantam: So there are going to be people who listen to this and say, "Look, this is all just pie in the sky. The people who really get ahead in life are the people who are brash and rude and have sharp elbows. Gratitude and compassion are for suckers." What do you say to them, David?

David DeSteno: I get this question a lot. People say to me, "Dave, I want to be a success. Should I be a jerk or should I be a nice guy?" I say, "Well what's your timeframe?" If you're a jerk in the short-term, if you're selfish, if you don't help other people, you can get ahead but in the long term those individuals pay a price because people do not want to interact with them, partner with them, work with them. But I do worry about this because ... In some sense is am I making people even in the moment suckers, but we recently ran a study where we kind of tackled this question and the way it worked was simply people were made to feel grateful by counting their blessings [inaudible 00:44:52] normally do that. And we have them watch Person A cheat Person B on something where Person A and Person B were both confederates. They had the opportunity to intervene, and what we found is people who were feeling grateful were more likely to intervene and try and correct Person A's behavior, the person who cheated, even to engage in something we call third party punishment, that is, they'd even pay a little money to have this person told, "Hey, you shouldn't do that," to harm this other individual.

David DeSteno: What we take from that is, when you're feeling grateful it doesn't make you a sucker, it doesn't make you willing to be walked all over. It makes you want to do the virtuous thing, but it also makes you willing to stand up for justice when you see someone else not being treated as well. And so the people who are feeling grateful, yes, their impulse is to do the right thing, but when they see injustices in the world, they are also the ones who are going to be more likely to call it out.

Shankar Vedantam: Some years ago at Hidden Brain, David, we began a weekly practice of acknowledging our unsung heroes on the show, so these were people who often worked in the background, and one thing I discovered is that once you start keeping an eye out for unsung heroes, they really are everywhere. Even the most trivial things need the help of so many different people. But here's the interesting part that I want to run by you. I've been surprised at how many of our listeners tell us that they love the unsung hero segment of our show. Now, of course, much of the time we are thanking people whom our listeners don't know. What is it, do you think, about seeing someone else express gratitude, even if it is to a third party, someone who you don't know, that makes us happy?

David DeSteno: I think two things. I think one, in seeing someone else express gratitude, what it is is ... It's a good type of virtue signaling. It's an index that this person appreciates, that they couldn't have achieved all of their goals in the world on their own. And the argument you're making is similar to one my collaborator the economist Bob Franks makes. We kind of have this assumption that everything good is due to our own efforts. And part of it is, but as you're saying there are many unsung heroes, there are many people without whose help we wouldn't be where we are. And so expressing gratitude is a marker that this person appreciates that fact, and I think it's a marker and a reminder that in some ways, we're all in this together and we are going to be appreciative of that.

Shankar Vedantam: You cite a sociologist who says that gratitude is the moral memory of humankind. I love that idea, that's really beautiful.

David DeSteno: Yeah, that's George Simmel. It is beautiful and I think what it is is it reminds us that everything we have achieved is not solely through our own effort. And it reminds us to pay it back and to pay it forward. And if we do that, the outcome for everybody is going to be a better one.

Shankar Vedantam: I want you to tell me about a moment in your life that occurred some time ago, David, when some of your elderly mother's caregivers did something special for her. What did they do and again what affect did it have on you?

David DeSteno: Yeah. So my mom is 99 and living in her house but she requires 24/7 care, and so she has a group of caregivers for women who help her with her needs throughout the day. But what became clear to me is that on her birthday when she turned 99, they organized a party for her so that the neighbors came. They bought her gifts, they made her her favorite meals and desserts, and this is so far above and beyond what they are required to do for their job as caretakers, at cost to themselves in terms of time and effort and money, even. And it was just so heartwarming to me and I choke up ... I choke up and I tear up when I think about it, because it made me feel so grateful because here's my mom, I can't give her the kind of care she needs personally. I'm an only child, I live far away and these people, yes, they're being paid to do it, but they go so far above and beyond that it's just made me feel more gratitude than I could ever have imagined.

David DeSteno: Again, it made me want to sacrifice and do wonderful things for them. And so yes it's heartwarming, yes it's beautiful, but it also nudges us, right? It nudges our minds to either pay those people back, or to pay it forward to others, and I think that's the beauty of gratitude. It ensures that there's going to be more blessings to come.

Shankar Vedantam: David DeSteno is a psychologist at Northeastern University. He is the author of Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride. David, thanks for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

David DeSteno: Thank you, Shankar.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Midroll Media is our exclusive advertising sales partner. Our audio production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Laura Kwerel, Autumn Barnes and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I am Hidden Brain's executive editor.

Shankar Vedantam: Our unsung hero this week is someone who has helped me think through numerous aspects of launching an independent production company. Very often, the nuts and bolts of the organizations in which we work are hidden from view, but I can attest, it's really important to get the fundamentals right. Over the past year or so, my friend and former colleague Lily Ladd helped me brainstorm how to launch a small business. Her strategic counsel has proven invaluable. It's shaping all the creative work we do on a weekly basis, which makes her a walking definition of an unsung hero. It helps that besides being a smart thinker, Lily is a terrific listener and a wonderful human being. Thank you Lily, I'm truly grateful. For more Hidden Brain, you can follow us on Facebook, Twitter and at HiddenBrain.org. I'm Shankar Vedantam, see you next week.

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