The comedown after the holidays can be rough. Some suffer in the grim January weather, others are shocked by the number on the scale after all the festivities, but for many folks the worst part of the post-season crash is the credit card bills.

It's easy to get caught up in all the gift giving and good cheer and let your budget go totally out of control. Then the new year rolls around and shock and regret set in. Is there any way to avoid this common cycle of overindulgence and repentance?

You might think that simple willpower is the answer. After all, we're all grown-ups here and know that what we buy has to be paid for. But according to psychologists things aren't that simple.

Writing in The New York Times Sunday Review recently, Northwestern University professor David DeSteno explains that "research has shown that willpower tends to be limited. Each successful exercise of it actually increases the likelihood of subsequent failure if temptations come in quick succession (as they do, for instance, in shopping malls)."

Gratitude, not willpower

So if willpower probably isn't the answer to holiday-related impulse buys, what is? It might seem just a little too seasonally appropriate to be true, but DeSteno insists that his research shows that gratitude is the key to keeping your spending under control. "As hokey as it sounds, the solution to the shopping season's excesses may lie in the very message of Thanksgiving itself," he claims.

To demonstrate this DeSteno's research team conducted a small experiment where they asked 75 participants to write about a time they felt grateful, amused, or simply their typical day before answering questions that measured their capacity for delayed gratification.

"Answers to these questions allowed us to calculate how financially patient people were. As we reported in an article in Psychological Science earlier this year, those feeling neutral (the ones who described their daily routine) demonstrated the usual preference for immediate reward... But those feeling grateful showed almost double the financial patience," DeSteno reports.

So if you're looking to resist the lure of that enticing sale or gorgeous bauble, science has a simple prescription for you: count your blessings before you shop. "You may find that the easiest way to thwart retailers' enticements as you peruse the shopping aisle isn't to try to resist what you want; it's to be thankful for what you have," DeSteno concludes.

Plus, focusing on what you're grateful for might have other benefits as well. Gratitude has also been shown to reduce impatience in other contexts and is one of the most frequently recommended routes to greater happiness (and therefore, a greater chance of success in life).

What are you most grateful for this holiday season?

Published on: Dec 7, 2015
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