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Hacking Delayed Gratification

Recently a local musician decided to take his personal passion for coffee to the next level by opening up a coffee cart downtown. It’s been very successful and created an opportunity for folks to gather and chat outdoors with a beautiful view of the Connecticut river (although due to weather he’s moved to the lobby of an art gallery – yes there is a theme of aesthetics here). You can see in the photo his menu is minimalist and contains an offer that is not all that familiar to Americans (because it is in Italian), although the concept is well known to many.

Sospesois literally translated as “suspended”, but its usage in Italian coffee shops denotes the practice of paying for a coffee for a future customer. It is the English version of “paying it forward”. In this case the owner anticipated that given his location in the downtown area he would likely have folks discover his cart but not have the means to buy a cup for themselves. And this brings me to the follow up from last week’s blog.

As I mentioned there, cognitive strategies to postpone short term gratification for long-term (but more importantly larger) benefits, do work, but they have substantial costs with respect to effort and maintenance. The good news is that we can augment those strategies with a number of pro-social emotions and gain multiple benefits.

Specifically, the emotions of gratitude, compassion and pride have been shown to increase the likelihood that individuals will hold off on short term gains in favor of larger (but delayed) gains. We’re not talking marshmallows here, we’re talking about cash :) Much of the contemporary, academic research I’m drawing on comes from David DeSteno and his recent book Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride. DeSteno does us a couple of big favors, first he does great research that helps to position the impact of pro-social emotions within the contemporary scientific paradigm that dominates Western thought; and second, he is a gifted translator of psychobabble into everyday language. His presence on YouTube is well worth checking out and his book is a great distillation of decades of academic research.

Paying it forward is really an act of generosity. It’s status as a pro-social action (along with the underlying emotion of feeling generous) is pretty easy to connect. I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of debating on whether or not any action is truly altruistic (i.e. done without regard for future payback/benefit), that is a big topic that warrants a deep dive into philosophy and social science research another day. We don’t need to take on that gnarly topic to acknowledge that there is nothing wrong with the idea of “paying it forward” with the expectation that sooner or later we will be rewarded for the action; perhaps through divine judgment or the law of karma, the mechanism doesn’t matter. It is enough to know that it is a social practice present in many cultures, people do it.

The more pragmatic question is, what motivates generosity, whether it be the pay-it-forward kind or the kind that occurs in the context of established social relationships? I suggest, based on related research, that gratitude plays an important role in the feeling of generosity.

Emotions that trigger our fight-flight-freeze response, namely anger, fear, and shock, tend to narrow and focus our attention on the immediate circumstances. Most of us will easily relate to the idea of acting in embarrassing or regretful ways under the influence of anger and fear in particular. Of course, there are evolutionary advantages at play here, these emotions trigger actions that keep us alive in extreme circumstances and protect our status in less extreme situations.

Positive emotions (also often referred to as soothing emotions because they trigger our parasympathetic nervous system) have a somewhat opposite effect. Barbara Fredrickson developed a theory of about positive emotions that she calls “Broadening and Building” because they tend to broaden our awareness (see the forest from the trees) and motivate us to build internal and external resources to strengthen social relationships. Fredrickson’s theory is a general theory of encompassing all positive emotions (thus the building of internal resources), but it certainly predicts the findings that DeSteno has demonstrated with respect to pro-social emotions.

Hey, what about the marshmallows you might be wondering. Well, when you combine a general sense of gratitude with a notion of “future-you”, you wind up with an individual who feels content with what they have in the moment, looks at the world from a broader perspective than just “right now”, and is willing to postpone gratification for the sake of themselves (and likely their loved ones at least) in the future. This is the focus of DeSteno’s research and it is truly amazing how big the impact of a little gratitude can be.

What I find particularly amazing about this effect is that it is not person or situation specific. All I need to do is cultivate a feeling of gratitude based on any situation in my life, and I will become more content and generous in general (i.e. to spin a term seen too often in the media these days, it does not require a quid-pro-quo!). In fact, just reading the story above about Corey’s coffee cart and his promotion of sospeso could trigger enough gratitude to change my (and your) behavior.

But, don’t take my word for it, try it out yourself. This week’s guided meditation is an adaption of a practice developed about 2200 years ago in Buddhist India and is specifically aimed at inducing a sense of gratitude. Try practicing it every day for a week and see what happens. You can go directly to YouTube to watch it here or go to my home page to link up with either the video or audio versions.

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