What led to success was strong social bonds — relationships that would encourage people to cooperate and lend support to one another, which helped to ensure that their sacrifices would be returned time and again when required in the future. But to establish and maintain relationships, people would have had to be fair, honest, generous, diligent and loyal. They would have had to be perceived as good partners. In other words, they would have had to behave morally. What underlies these moral traits is the ability to put something else ahead of your own immediate desires and interests — to exercise self-control. Working hard to keep up your end of a deal or helping another person by giving time, money, food or a shoulder to cry on all require a willingness to sacrifice some resources in the moment. Emotions such as gratitude, compassion, and contribution power us through.
Studies from my lab, for example, show that gratitude directly increases self-control. In a version of the marshmallow test adapted for adults, we had people take a few minutes to recall an event that made them feel grateful, neutral or happy. Those who were feeling gratitude, however, showed nearly double the self-control. In a similar vein, we followed people for three weeks, measuring their levels of daily gratitude, and found the same boost to self-control. Our research also shows that when we make people feel grateful, they’ll spend more time helping anyone who asks for assistance, they’ll make financial decisions that benefit partners equally (rather than ones that allow profit at a partner’s expense), and they’ll show loyalty to those who have helped them even at costs to themselves.
Responsibility, gratitude and compassion, whether we consciously realize it or not, reduce the human mind’s tendency to discount the value of the future. In so doing, they push us not only to cooperate with other people but also to help our own future selves. Feeling pride/responsibility or compassion has been shown to increase perseverance on difficult tasks by over 30 percent. Likewise, gratitude and compassion have been tied to better academic performance, a greater willingness to exercise and eat healthily, and lower levels of consumerism, impulsivity and tobacco and alcohol use.
Using these emotions actually heals: They slow heart rate, lower blood pressure and reduce feelings of anxiety and depression. By making us value the future more, they ease the way to patience and perseverance. They also promote community, which is healthy, and give us not only grit but also grace.
So as 2018 commences, take more time to cultivate these emotions. Reflect on what you’re grateful to have been given. Allow your mind to step into the shoes of those in need and feel for them. Take pride in the small achievements on the path to your goals, contributing to the community at large.
Adapted from David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, is the author of the forthcoming book “Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride.”