You’ve probably heard of the classic cookie experiment on children and willpower. In it, a researcher mildly tortures some unsuspecting kid by placing a tasty sweet in front of him or her. Eat it now and you enjoy a single goodie, the researcher explains. Resist temptation a short time and you double your haul to two treats!
It’s no surprise that many kids cave. What’s more shocking is that the ability to hold out is actually correlated with the child’s success later in life, while snatching the sweet straight off is associated with lower SAT scores, greater obesity, and even slightly higher rates of substance abuse in adulthood.
It turns out that willpower--the ability to delay gratification--is one of the most fundamental skills for success in school, adulthood, and, of course, business.
But are you stuck with whatever level you had as a kid? If you’re the impatient type, is there a way to boost your willpower and keep your hands off the proverbial cookie? A new study offers an intriguing suggestion: gratitude.
The Cookie Test for Adults
The soon-to-be-published study out of Northeastern, Harvard, and UC, Riverside, looked at impatience in adults, so instead of cookies the researchers opted for small cash rewards. Participants were told they could get $54 now or $80 in 30 days, but before they could decide they were assigned to one of three groups. The control group was left to whatever feelings they came in with, while the remaining groups were made to feel either happy or grateful.
"Although participants feeling neutral and happy showed a strong preference for immediate payouts, those feeling grateful showed more patience,” a release announcing the results explains. "For example, they required $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."
An Instant Injection of Willpower
These results aren’t aren’t just of academic interest, according to professor Ye Li of the UC, Riverside, School of Business Administration, who participated in the research. "Showing that emotion can foster self-control," says Li, "and discovering a way to reduce impatience with a simple gratitude exercise opens up tremendous possibilities for reducing a wide range of societal ills, from impulse buying and insufficient saving to obesity and smoking."
Easy interventions to boost gratitude, like keeping a journal in which you jot down three things you’re grateful for each evening or even just taking a couple of minutes to reflect and give thanks at the close of each day, have been shown to boost happiness. Perhaps these sorts of exercises can help you boost your willpower and improve your long-term decision making, too.
So next time you’re feeling impatient, give it a try. Stop tapping your foot or mentally grumbling and instead redirect your thoughts to the things you’re grateful for. You just might get an instant injection of willpower.