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Can Gratitude Help You Live More Sustainably?

By Elizabeth Svoboda | Greater Good Magazine

Among the first visual symbols of the COVID-19 pandemic were grocery store shelves picked clean by shoppers hoarding pasta and toilet paper. The bare shelves revealed a deeply ingrained human tendency—to grasp for all that’s left when supplies run low.

As climate change puts a strain on crop yields and drinking water stores, these kinds of feeding frenzies could become the new normal. But they’re not inevitable: New research from Northeastern University suggests that when people feel grateful for what they have, they’re less likely to overdraw from a shrinking pool of resources. The study “provides initial evidence that gratitude is useful in nudging sustainable behavior,” says graduate student Shanyu Kates, the paper’s first author.

Kates’s findings suggest that practicing gratitude could curb our collective tendency to take more than our share, says psychologist Scott Allison of the University of Richmond.

“Gratitude led to less greedy and more generous choices,” says Allison, who was not involved in the research. “What’s really impressive is how the investigators were able to demonstrate that it was gratitude itself, not the happiness that results from gratitude, which produces more prosocial [kind and helpful] behavior.”

A depleted commons

Sustainable-living promoters tend to run up against what ecologist Garrett Hardin called the “tragedy of the commons”: People hoard resources to ensure they can meet their own needs, but the resulting scarcity takes a toll on everyone’s well-being.

Kates and her advisor, Northeastern social psychologist David DeSteno, wanted to explore possible ways to forestall this kind of tragedy. In one study, they recruited 155 undergraduate students and induced gratitude in one group by having them write about a time when they felt grateful. The remaining control-group students wrote about events from a typical day.

After this writing exercise, all the participants took part in a game where they decided how many resources points to extract from a collective bank. The game started with a common pool of 200 points. “For each round of the game, we tell them, ‘You can take out a certain amount of points—between zero and 10—and whatever is taken out goes to you,’” Kates says.

To make sure people valued the points, experimenters told the students that the more points they extracted, the more likely they were to win a $200 cash prize. Throughout the game, participants could see how many points other players had taken and how many points were left. After each round was played, the researchers boosted the point bank by 10% to mimic the regeneration of real-life resources.

When Kates and DeSteno tallied the results, a significant difference emerged between the gratitude group and the control group. Control participants took significantly more points from the pool when they saw it draining rapidly. Grateful participants, however, took about the same number of points no matter how quickly the pool was shrinking.

In a second, related study, Kates and DeSteno divided 224 participants into three groups. One wrote about gratitude and another about a happy time in their lives. The control group wrote about their daily routine.

Just as in the first study, the gratitude group refrained from overdrawing resources in the game even when they were draining quickly. Feeling happy, however, didn’t inspire people to show the same kind of restraint.

“If you’re in a neutral or a happy state, you increase your point taking when the pool is depleting,” Kates says. “But for gratitude, this effect becomes erased. It doesn’t matter if others around you are over-taking and the pool is depleting—you won’t over-take [from the pool] yourself.”

The sustaining power of gratitude

Kates and DeSteno’s study didn’t specifically address why grateful people may be more apt to behave sustainably than those who simply feel good. But past research, Kates points out, suggests that happiness sometimes drives us to become more self-centered as we seek out situations that promise even more happiness.

“When you’re feeling happy, you might not want to sacrifice by taking less and conserving for the group,” Kates says. Picture a rat at a sugar-water dispenser—once it’s had a taste of uncomplicated sweetness, it returns to that same dispenser over and over.

Gratitude, on the other hand, has promoted both well-being and social awareness in multiple experiments. In a University of California–Riverside study where high school students spent 10 minutes a week writing letters of gratitude to friends, coaches, and other influential people, they reported feeling more satisfied with their lives and more connected to others around them than members of a control group.

That sense of connectedness could help inspire generous or sustainable action. In a meta-analysis reviewing 91 studies, researchers at the U.K.’s University of Nottingham found a strong relationship between gratitude and prosocial behavior of different kinds.

“Sustainability really requires action for future benefit as well as collective benefit,” Kates says. “Gratitude promotes these dimensions—it makes us behave more prosocially, and it makes us more cooperative with others.”

Something akin to the reciprocity principle may also be at work: When someone gives something to you, you naturally feel compelled to give something back. In the same way, when people feel grateful for good fortune or for contributions others have made to their lives, they may be more likely to take a “pay it forward” approach and look for ways to contribute to the common good.

Future interventions

The observed connection between gratitude and sustainable behavior means that gratitude exercises could potentially help keep the planet livable over the long term. “If we are fortunate enough to live in a part of the world that offers us clean, drinkable water, let’s be grateful each time we use it,” Allison says. “With the desertification of the western U.S., this simple practice of gratitude on a mass level may forestall disaster.”

However, Kates says, more research needs to be done to clarify which aspects of gratitude might promote sustainable behavior and why. She is planning a new study that examines how individual players’ behavior during the resource game affects the behavior of others around them. “Does a group of grateful people fare better in the game than those where none of them are grateful? And what happens if only one person in the group is feeling grateful? Is that enough to shift others’ behaviors?”

If grateful people turn out to set a behavioral lead for others to follow, a group might ultimately reach a sustainable “immunity threshold,” so to speak: a new social norm that encourages judicious resource use even in members who aren’t naturally inclined to care about such things.

“It’s promising to think about and measure how cultivating long-term gratitude through daily practice may be useful in this battle against climate change,” Kates says, “and be able to be the tipping point for large-scale behavioral changes.”

About the Author
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Elizabeth Svoboda

Elizabeth Svoboda is a writer in San Jose, CA, and a regular contributor to Greater Good. She is the author of What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness. Her newest book, for kids, is The Life Heroic.




10 Things You Need to Know To Become a Great Leader

They fired me. They fired me as CEO. Then they fired me as a board member. Then they took away my shares. And now none of them ever talk to me.

I started the company, I had the initial idea, I raised $30 million for it from A+ investors (i.e. “rich people”),

I bought two companies for it, I hired the first 50 employees, and then I was shown the door.

The reason? I was a bad leader. Here are some things I didn’t know about my own company: I didn’t know what our product did. I didn’t know any of the clients. I didn’t know how much money we made. I didn’t know how much we lost. And I had crushes on the secretaries and maybe two or ten other employees.

I would’ve gladly stuck my tongue in the ears of any of those employees. Eewww!

But why was I fired?

I just didn’t do anything… for… anyone.

I never wanted to talk. I would lock myself in my office and people would knock and I would pretend not to be there.

If anyone wanted to talk to me about “vision” I would just nod my head and say something like, “make it happen”, like I was Captain Picard on the Starship Enterprise.

Being a leader doesn’t mean you are the guy who runs things.

Being a leader doesn’t mean you created something or you did something great in the past or some other person has given you any kind of authority.

Being a leader happens RIGHT NOW, today, and can be done without money, without authority, and without anybody. First, you have to lead yourself.

It’s a mindset. I’m going to make a list. Forgive me. Feel free to add to the list or add your own experiences in the comments. In fact, I would really appreciate if you can add to this list.

After running 20 or so companies (most of them failures). After investing in 30 companies (most of them successes) after advising or being on the board of a dozen companies (most of them successes) and after being married twice (50% success rate), I have a sense of what I think a leader is.

I may be wrong but this is my list.

A) MORE SUCCESS FOR OTHERS THAN FOR YOU

Most important by far: you care about the success of others more than you care about your own success. Everyone around you needs to ultimately become better than you.

That’s how you lead. The light is in front of you and you take them to the light and then go back.

If all the people around you achieve more than you, then life will be good. You don’t have to believe me. I’ve seen this happen repeatedly.

It doesn’t matter if they are employees, investors, friends, spouses. If you just focus on this one principle in all of your actions then you are a leader. Today: figure out how the people around you can have a successful day.

Hint: don’t stick your tongue in their ear.

B) YES, AND

I just wrote a book called The Power of No. Buy it because your life will be better (and I am not ashamed of plugging it).

But now I’m about to tell you to say “yes”.

Claudia had an idea for a joke this morning that she wants to start a talk off with. I had a suggestion to change it. I didn’t say, “Don’t do that. Do this.” I said, “Yes, and…” a technique used in improv comedy.

What does it mean? I trust Claudia and value her thoughts so I if I just say “no”!” it shows I haven’t given enough respect into the time she put into coming up with an idea.

So I say “Yes, and” … and say what is good about her idea and then how I think it can be made even better and why. I give all of her ideas and thoughts respect and add to them rather than ever subtract from them.

CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM WORKS LIKE THIS:

a. “Yes, and”
 b. List what’s good
 c. How you would improve
 d. Figure out the vision that is the base of the idea that you are talking about. e. Connect the “Why” of what you are suggesting to the initial vision. Does it work better than the initial idea? f. Be open to the fact that you might be wrong. ALWAYS ALWAYS you might be wrong.

C) GRATITUDE

I was talking to Lewis Howes yesterday. He’s an athlete turned multi-million dollar webinar and Linkedin expert after living on his sister’s couch. He was on my podcast a few months ago.

I don’t have a voicemail set up on my phone. But Lewis told me his voicemail says, “before you leave me a message, tell me one thing you are grateful for.”

He says the messages people leave blow him away.

I always imagine a good leader is surrounded by people who call their mothers at the end of the day and tell them, “Mom, you can’t believe what I did today. Let me tell you about it.”

Not that every day is fun. Because some work isn’t. But make sure every day your employees can call Lewis Howes and they have at least one new thing they can be grateful for.

Maybe they learned a new skill. Maybe they met a new client and created value for that client. Maybe a client they hated was fired because you can’t let your employees get the disease that bad clients are all too happy to spread.

D) THE 30-150 RULE (OR…THE VISION RULE)

Below 30 people, an organization is a tribe. 70,000 years ago, if a tribe got bigger than 30 people there’s evidence it would split into two tribes.

A tribe is like a family. With a family you learn personally who to trust and who not to trust. You learn to care for their individual problems. You know everything about the people in your tribe.

At 30 people, a leader spends time with each person in the tribe and knows how to listen to their issues.

From 30-150 people you might not know everyone. But you know OF everyone. You know you can trust Jill because Jack tells you you can trust Jill and you trust Jack.

After 150 people you can’t keep track of everyone. It’s impossible. But this is where humans split off from every other species.

We united with each other by telling stories. We told stories of nationalism, religion, sports, money, products, better, great, BEST!

If two people believe in the same story they might be thousands of miles apart and total strangers but they still have a sense they can trust each other.

A LEADER TELLS A VISIONARY STORY. We are delivering the best service because…. We are helping people in unique ways because…. We have the best designs because…. We treat people better because….

A good story, like any story ever told, starts with a problem, goes through the painful process of solving the problem, and has a solution that is better than anything ever seen before.

First you listened to people, then you took care of people, but now you unite people under a vision they believe in and trust and bond with.

Companies live and die on this. One company I advise got built up by buying 200 regional offices, now they are unifying them under one brand.

The key to their success is how powerful the story will be that they tell of that brand. Why are they delivering the greatest value? People need to believe in the story.

By the way, this is how humans killed everyone else. Because now we could plan and coordinate in much larger groups than any other species. That’s why there are no other sapiens left on the world. Only homo sapien sapiens (i.e. “humans”).

Proof: within 3000 years of humans first landing in Australia, no species was left that could put up a fight with us. We killed them all.

Yay humans!

E) CHANGE

Everyone has pain they don’t want to feel. For instance, I might feel pain if someone makes fun of my looks. I used to feel pain if someone questioned my net worth, which I equated with self worth. If I’m CEO I might have pain if the “numbers” go down.

So we do things to hide the pain. We might wear nice clothes not because we like the clothes but because they are buffers for the pain: nobody will make fun of my looks.

Imagine all the things we do as buffers for pain. We might avoid going to the store because we don’t want to run into the people who cause us pain. We might hide some numbers because we don’t want investors to think we are bad CEOs.

Soon, everything in our lives we might think give us pleasure (because we are now avoiding all the pain) are actually just buffers against pain and change.

When you can get rid of the buffers against pain and change life becomes more insecure, but we become FREE.

We live in a bigger world, a world where risk and beauty go hand in hand and we are no longer afraid of the underlying pains.

A leader is always prepared for change. And realizes that pain is just opportunities to live in a bigger and more abundant world.

This is the secret that most people forget when they build their brick houses and hide inside from the outside world so pain doesn’t seek them out.

F) DIGNITY

The other day someone cancelled on my podcast at the last minute. I had rescheduled other meetings and even changed the time I would see one of my daughter’s plays so I could interview this person, a very very successful entrepreneur.

She wanted to now reschedule but I said “no”, even to the detriment of my podcast and all the people who work with me on the podcast who were looking forward to the interview.

I wasn’t angry with the person. She’s running a business and was probably very busy. And people reschedule all the time. I just didn’t like that it was last minute. I had studio time booked and no space to fill it.

I have a vision for my podcast. Everyone who comes on are people who have transformed their lives and created the lives they wanted to. I want my listeners to be helped by the transformative stories of my guests.

The world is changing very fast and it’s scary. I want to help people be less scared and I know I am less scared when I hear the stories of my guests and learn from them.

Although I’m relatively new at podcasting (7 months), I treat my podcast as if it’s already achieved the dream I have for it. The place where people come on to help others deal with the crazy changes happening in our world and economy.

If I don’t treat my own projects with respect then how can I expect others to?

If I don’t treat myself with dignity, then how can I expect the people around me to treat me, or even each other, with dignity?

G) THERE’S ALWAYS A GOOD REASON AND A REAL REASON

People come to you every day with problems. The problems are usually very good problems. “The client is asking for too much”. Or “Jill didn’t do her job right” or “My car broke down”.

One time an employee asked to meet me outside the office. She was crying. I asked her what was wrong. She was afraid she was doing a bad job with a client.

And she was. But it turned out the real problem was she heard one of my business partners talking poorly about her behind her back and this was affecting her every day at work.

This was the real problem that had to be fixed. And it did. And then everything, employee, client, partner, etc went well…

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