Gratitude Journals and Loewenstein’s Challenge

by on July 30, 2004 at 2:04 pm in Economics | Permalink

Background: George Loewenstein is one of the leading figures in Economics and Psychology.

While walking in Pittsburgh one afternoon, Loewenstein tells me that he doesn’t see how anybody could study happiness and not find himself leaning left politically; the data make it all too clear that boosting the living standards of those already comfortable, such as through lower taxes, does little to improve their levels of well-being, whereas raising the living standards of the impoverished makes an enormous difference. (full story)

Of course, you don’t need Loewenstein to make this point. You could just listen to my favorite song by Johnny Cash, featured in the so-good-it-hurts soundtrack for Kill Bill, Volume 2:

How many times have
You heard someone say
If I had his money
I could do things my way

But little they know
That it’s so hard to find
One rich man in ten
With a satisfied mind

Money can’t buy back
Your youth when you’re old
Or a friend when you’re lonely
Or a love that’s grown cold

The wealthiest person
Is a pauper at times
Compared to the man
With a satisfied mind

The answer to Loewenstein’s challenge can be found in the growing psychological literature on gratitude. Several interesting experiments (like this one) ask subjects to keep a “gratitude journal.” Main idea: Every day, write down things you are grateful for. Depending on the experiment, control groups either do nothing, or keep an “ingratitude” diary, or write down a random childhood memory. The main finding is that keeping a gratitude journal makes people happier than the other treatments.

So what? Almost all redistributive rhetoric urges people to dwell on the negative – you or other people aren’t getting what is due. This in turn makes people want to “do something” about the problem. And you can rest assured that no matter how much redistribution there is, egalitarians will never say “OK, life’s fair now. We’re done complaining.” No, what they foster is literally a lifestyle of ingratitude – a recipe for unhappiness.

If we really want to make people happier, we would do almost the opposite. Tell people to be grateful for what the market gives them, and try to emulate more successful people instead of envying them. Children hear this all the time, and it is damn good advice. Adults should practice what they preach.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: