When you’re trying to get your financial house in order, it’s easy to get lost in the specifics. You might stress about how to adjust your budget, where to find some extra cash for the holidays or what funds to choose for your portfolio. But sometimes, making the right financial choices will only take you so far.
Many of us have deeper issues with money – issues that can’t be resolved with spreadsheets or budgeting apps. As much as we might like to think that our financial choices stem from cold logic, they’re more likely to come from emotion. It’s certainly not the rational part of your brain choosing to order a $400 pair of shoes after a bad work week.
But there is hope for shopaholics and penny pinchers alike. New research has shown a promising way to improve your relationship with money, as well as your overall happiness. Here’s how gratitude can help.
How Gratitude Makes People Save
There are a multitude of reasons why people struggle to save for retirement. Maybe they feel like they don’t know enough about investing. Maybe they’re not yet eligible for a company 401k. Maybe they have a spending problem that precludes them from putting away money each month.
But more often than not, it’s because they don’t see the point of preparing for something so far in the future. If you struggle with this line of thinking, gratitude can steer you into the right mindset.
A 2014 study conducted by researchers from Northeastern University, University of California Riverside and Harvard University divided people into three groups. The first group had to write about a time they were grateful, while the second group wrote about a time they were happy. The third wrote about an average day.
Then, they were asked to choose between getting a small amount of money now or a larger amount in the future. The second and third groups were more likely to ask for money now, but the grateful group was more willing to wait.
The researchers concluded that gratitude curbs impatience and overindulging. By reflecting on things you’re already grateful for, you become less inclined to seek out immediate satisfaction or pleasure. This has implications not only for those struggling to save, but also for those struggling with a shopping habit.
How Gratitude Can Help Overspending
Let’s imagine you’re in a really bad mood. You just found out your boss wasn’t thrilled with your latest project at work, the guy you’re dating is ghosting you and your friends are all celebrating promotions, engagements and other milestones.
During this moment, you might be tempted to reach for the plastic and indulge in some retail therapy. You go online, buy some things on Amazon that you don’t really need, order takeout and a bottle of wine and sit down to binge on Netflix.
Instead of alleviating your symptoms, you’ve probably just made things worse. Now you feel guilty for overspending, overeating and letting your emotions take the wheel.
Next time you feel crappy and want to splurge, take a moment to feel grateful instead. Write down some things you appreciate, like a cat you love or an apartment that’s decorated to your taste. Keep a running list that you turn to in moments of weakness, and try to add one new thing every time.
Why Gratitude Works
A study from the University of Berkeley examined how gratitude could help college students who were already in counseling for mental health issues. The students were divided into three groups. One group had to write letters expressing gratitude to someone, a second group had to write about negative experiences they’ve had, and the third group didn’t have a writing assignment.
The first group had greater results than the other two groups, with the side effects carrying on for 12 weeks after the experiment. By learning to focus on the genuine positivity already existing in their lives, the students were able to distance themselves from toxic emotions and ideas.
I’ve had my own personal experiences with the power of gratitude over the years, but lately it’s become an even more important part of my life. I’m currently dealing with some health problems that require surgery, and it’s been a struggle to stay positive.
But even though I’m scared of the long operation and even longer recovery, I’m grateful that I can afford it all. I’ve met people who can’t afford the same surgery I’m getting, and I’m thankful to not need a Kickstarter or GoFundMe just to pay my medical bills.
How to Become Grateful
To start a gratitude practice, pick a time of day to reflect on what you’re grateful for. Choose the same time everyday, as this will help you develop the practice into a habit.
Then, decide how you want to record your thoughts of gratitude. You can pick a physical notebook or write in the margins of your day planner. Some people choose to send emails to themselves.
Like with any habit, start slow at first. Write down one thing you’re grateful for and add more over time. If you can’t think of anything new, try to deepen your appreciation for one of the things you already listed. Take the time to be grateful in everyday situations, even if it seems corny.
Be specific when you can. Instead of saying, “I’m grateful for my health,” say, “I’m grateful that I have the time and money to go to the gym and buy lots of vegetables.” The more you can flesh out your feelings of gratitude, the more you’ll feel that gratitude building inside you.
When you start this new practice, consider asking a friend to do it with you. My husband and I have a habit of reciting what we’re grateful for during our evening dog walk, and it’s now become second nature.
When you find yourself stressing about financial problems or comparing yourself to wealthier friends and family, stop and write down what you have to be grateful for. It can be as small as your daily text chain with your sister or as significant as your relationship with your spouse. Over time, gratitude will become a fundamental part of your worldview.