Monday, December 29, 2014

Gratitude and Wellbeing

I heard psychologist Dacher Keltner, a founder of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, on the radio this morning calling for more gratitude as a counterweight to the materialism of the season.The work of Keltner and others has shown that gratitude is closely associated with health and overall wellbeing.
The value in gratitude for our sense of self is related to the sorts of positional consumption arms races that Bob Frank has written about.  (The value of "positional goods" owes more to their scarcity and social identity aspects than to their material properties: the real utility of that $3000 Birkin handbag (to carry stuff around) is about the same as a plastic shopping bag.)  We adapt to new material circumstances quickly and then aspire to more. When I started my career, my imagined dream position was where I am now; and yet, in arriving here, my dreams and aspirations have changed and expanded so that I still fell as if I am missing something in my life.

Such aspiration is important, gives meaning and direction and energy to our lives (as I argue in The Good Life). There is a lot of subjective value in anticipation, as an article in the Atlantic highlights. And yet it can also be a source of constant discontent if not combined with gratitude for what we have. This is a propitious time of the year to think not about what we lack but also what we have--and it is a useful exercise to do this while thinking about what we wanted ten or twenty or thirty years ago.

Research also shows that experiences matter more than things in overall wellbeing--we remember them better and they increase of overall sense of life satisfaction. Psychologist Thomas Gilovich and his colleagues have shown in a number of studies that money spent on experiences (rather than objects) provides more enduring happiness among subjects. As with positional goods, experiences are tightly linked to identity--in many ways our identities are built from experiences.

Stuff is certainly important, but as Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton note in Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, new-ness wears off quickly and is often followed by disappointment. We need things, but the meaning of things goes beyond their material properties--a thing, anything, also serves as a vessel for our ideas, a container for our hopes and dreams. And our aspirations often give more meaning to objects than they can handle, leading to disappointment.

So, while gratitude cannot replace aspiration, it is a necessary counterbalance for wellbeing.

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