A Spirit of Gratitude Is Healthy for Society

Greetings as we approach the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving celebration. The Pilgrims in 1621 had much to be thankful for. They had arrived a year earlier with “no friends to wellcome them, nor inns to entertaine or refresh their weatherbeaten bodys, no houses or much less townes to repaire too, to seeke for succoure,” in the words of their leader, William Bradford. The Wampanoags, hoping the white settlers would help them fight other tribes, helped them survive the harsh winter. The wary allies celebrated that fall with a feast of turkeys, ducks and venison, although probably not cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie.

What does giving thanks have to do with economics? A lot, actually. I apologize if this sounds like an imitation of a David Brooks column, but the truth is that a spirit of gratitude motivates precisely the behaviors that a successful economy requires, particularly patience and generosity. For this newsletter I interviewed David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University (about 35 miles from where the Pilgrims landed), who is one of the leading authorities on the social effects of gratitude.

DeSteno’s recent papers include “Gratitude Reduces Consumption of Depleting Resources,” completed last year with Shanyu Kates, and “The Grateful Don’t Cheat: Gratitude as a Fount of Virtue” written with Fred Duong, Daniel Lim and Kates and published in Psychological Science in 2019. He published a book this year titled “How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion.” I also recommend a talk that he gave at Google in 2018 on the topic of gratitude.

Naturally, I asked DeSteno how he celebrates Thanksgiving. “Of course everybody sits around the table and we talk about what we’re grateful for,” he said. “But if you do it once a year it’s not going to do anything for you.” Gratitude must be cultivated throughout the year, he said.

Until recently, the conventional wisdom in economics was that people should use the rational part of their brains to control the emotional part. Pure reason would suppress impulsiveness, greed and lust, allowing people to save for retirement, stick to a diet and stay faithful to their spouses. But scholars — not just DeSteno — have come around to the idea that a more effective way to combat negative emotions is with positive emotions. It’s less stressful, too, because you’re feeling good while doing good.

“Gratitude gives us more patience,” DeSteno said. “It focuses us on long-term gains over short-term satisfaction. In morality it allows us to be honest, be fair. We can reduce the cheating rate of people by 50 percent and make them more generous with profits.”

There’s something odd about exhorting people to be grateful by telling them it will be good for them. After all, is it really gratitude if it’s purely instrumental? DeSteno is aware of the seeming paradox, but he says there’s no contradiction. “In cultivating gratitude you are helping yourself, but you are also helping others,” he told me.

Shakespeare’s King Lear says, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is / To have a thankless child.” David Hume, the philosopher, said, “Of all crimes that human creatures are capable of committing, the most horrid and unnatural is ingratitude.” And the comedian Louis C.K. — every bit their equal! — used to do a riff about a guy on a plane who got miffed when the in-flight Wi-Fi stopped working. “Like, how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago.”

In other words, gratitude doesn’t come to us easily. But it’s worth working on. DeSteno told me, “If we were to do every day what we do on Thanksgiving, our lives would be better for it.”

In that spirit, I thank you for reading this newsletter. Please send me your favorite story about gratitude using the email address below. I will share one of them in my Dec. 3 edition.

Number of the week


The preliminary reading for the Markit PMI index of eurozone manufacturing in November, according to the median forecast of economists surveyed by FactSet. That would be down from 58.3 in October and a recent peak of 63.4 in June. Supply-chain bottlenecks in manufacturing are a major factor in the index’s decline. The official number will be released on Tuesday.

Quote of the day

“The good life, as I conceive it, is a happy life. I do not mean that if you are good you will be happy; I mean that if you are happy you will be good.”

— Bertrand Russell, “New Hopes for a Changing World” (1951)

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