Reviews | A spirit of gratitude is healthy for society


Greetings as we approach the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving celebration. The pilgrims of 1621 had much to be thankful for. They had arrived a year earlier without “no friends to welcome them, no hostels to entertain or refresh their tired bodies, no houses or even fewer towns to repair, to seek help”, 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 Distrustful Allies celebrated this fall with a feast of turkeys, ducks and venison, but likely no cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie.

What does giving thanks have to do with the economy? A lot, in fact. I apologize if this sounds like an imitation of a David Brooks column, but the truth is that a spirit of gratitude drives precisely the behaviors that a thriving economy demands, especially patience and generosity. For this newsletter, I interviewed David DeSteno, 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.

Recent DeSteno articles include “Gratitude Reduces Consumption of Depleted 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. This year he published a book called “How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion”. I also recommend a talk he gave to Google in 2018 on the topic of gratitude.

Of course, I asked DeSteno how he celebrated Thanksgiving. “Of course everyone sits around the table and we talk about what we are thankful for,” he said. “But if you do it once a year, it won’t do you any good. Gratitude should be cultivated throughout the year, he said.

Until recently, the conventional wisdom in economics was that people should use the rational part of their brain to control the emotional part. Pure reason would suppress impulsiveness, greed, and lust, allowing people to save for retirement, diet, and stay loyal to their spouse. But researchers – not just DeSteno – have come to the idea that a more effective way to deal with negative emotions is to use positive emotions. It’s also less stressful, because you feel good while doing good.

“Gratitude gives us more patience,” DeSteno said. “It focuses us on long-term gains rather than short-term satisfaction. Morally, it allows us to be honest, to be fair. We can reduce people’s cheating rate by 50% and make them more generous with the profits. “

There is something strange about urging people to be grateful by telling them that it will be good for them. After all, is it really gratitude if it’s purely instrumental? DeSteno is aware of the apparent paradox, but he says there is no contradiction. “By 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 / To have an ungrateful child.” David Hume, the philosopher, said: “Of all the crimes that human creatures are capable of committing, the most horrible and unnatural is ingratitude. And the actor Louis CK, their equal! – used to riff on a guy on an airplane who got mad when the in-flight wi-fi stopped working. “Like, how quickly the world owes him something that he knew existed only 10 seconds ago.”

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

With that in mind, thank you for reading this newsletter. Please send me your favorite gratitude story using the email address below. I’ll share one of them in my December 3 edition.


The preliminary reading of the Markit PMI manufacturing sector in the euro zone in November, according to the median forecast of economists polled by FactSet. This would be down from 58.3 in October and a recent peak of 63.4 in June. Supply chain bottlenecks in the manufacturing sector are a major factor in the index’s decline. The official issue will be published on Tuesday.

“The good life, as I see it, is a happy life. I don’t mean that if you are good you will be happy; I mean if you are happy you will be good.

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

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