Articles, Blog

Cultivating Gratitude in a Consumerist Society

November 6, 2019

So, you heard from the terrific presentation
in the last panel what a great thing gratitude is, and therefore, the natural question is
“How do we get more of it? You can study that question directly by thinking “What are people
like?,” and “What is gratitude like?,” and how can we mix the two together nicely to
promote it. You can also tackle that question indirectly by saying “What are some of the
roadblocks to gratitude?,” and that’s the approach I want to take today. I want to talk
about two enemies of gratitude, and if we approach it and think about what are the barriers,
how can we pull the barriers down to produce more of this very beneficial emotion?
So, first barrier is what I call a headwind/tailwind asymmetry. If any of you ride a bike for exercise
or go running for exercise, you’ll know that when you’re running or bicycling into the
wind, you’re very aware of it and just can’t wait til the course turns around and you’ve
got the wind at your back. When that happens, you feel great, but then you forget about
it very quickly and you’re just not very aware of the wind at your back, and that’s just
a fundamental feature of how our minds and how the world works.We’re just gonna be more
aware of those barriers than the things that boost us along. You can see thatd epicted
in this slide right here, that is to say if you went on Google Image right now and typed
in ‘headwinds,’ you’d get actual photos like you see on the left. It’s easy to capture
that in nature. If, on the other hand, you went to Google Images and you typed in ‘tailwinds,’
you wouldn’t see a single real world image. You have to depict in schematically; you can’t
just capture it in an image, and what’s true photographically is also true psychologically.
That is to say, since we’re goal-striving, problem-solving organisms, we’re naturally
going to be oriented toward the barriers that we have to overcome. That’s a very good thing
for our material existence, but it creates an obvious problem in terms of not being aware
of all the stuff that’s helped us along. You see this in all sorts of areas of life; let
me just present two real quick ones. The first one will be familiar to anyone, and it’s nice
to see there are people like this that are roughly my age… an old comedic duo from
the 1960s that captures this idea: “How about you don’t sing the rest of the
show? I’ll do this on my own.””Mom always liked you best!”Alright, that was the Smothers
Brothers, and sorry I don’t have the time to let that one run, to show you
the comedy out of it, but they made a career out of that basic line, “Mom always liked
you best!” If you think in terms of the headwind/tailwind asymmetry, it makes sense that kids would
think that, that is,every time their siblings being treated well, that’s in your face, you
know it. When you’re treated well,you may not notice that so well.
So, do kids actually think this? Yes, if you ask a bunch of older and younger siblings,
everyone’s aware that parents are harsher on the older sibling than the younger sibling,
you see that there [on slide], it’s tilted toward the older sibling direction. However,
the thicker bar, the responses on the part of older siblings, they see that difference
as much more pronounced. Their parents were harsher on them, it seems, than their younger
siblings. Let’s take it out of the family and go to
this national family that we have. We have this unusual electoral device known as the
‘electoral college.’ Does the electoral college tend to work against your candidates,or does
it tend to work for your candidates? Well, if you’re a Republican, and since we’ve left
the confines of Berkeley, there may be a Republican or two here, you’re likely to remember those
times that it worked against you and that’s in your face. Whereas, if you’re a Democrat,
you’re going to think that the times it’s worked against you, and you’re going to be
very aware of that. So, if you ask people “Does the electoral college help your side
or hurt your side?,” it’s a rout; people think that it helps the other side rather than their side.
So, that’s barrier number one: this inherent asymmetry between headwinds and tailwinds.
The second problem, or enemy, of gratitude is our remarkable capacity for adaptation.
A nice illustration of how almost every human strength is a human weakness as well; when
something terrible happens to us, this is one of the greatest gifts that we have: this
terrible thing happens and we’re laidlow by it, but we quickly, remarkably quickly, overcome
it and people who suffered great tragedies move on to live very fulfilling lives. On
the other hand, it’s a problem when it comes to good things: you strive for things, to
have these great things in your life, you get lots of joy from them, and eventually,
they aren’t so joyous. Let me show you another film clip that illustrates this phenomenon,
the dark side of habituation or adaptation: “I was on an airplane and there was internet,
high-speed internet on the airplane, that’s the newest thing that I know exists, and I’m
sitting on the plane, they go ‘Open up your laptop, you can surf the internet,’ and it’s
fast, I’m watching Youtube clips, I mean, on an airplane. Then it breaks down, and they
apologize, ‘The internet’s not working,’ and the guy next to me goes ‘Pffft, this is bull*#%*.’
Like,how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago.
Ok, I think we can all relate to that, we can all relate to the fact that we ought to
be thinking of air travel itself as some miracle, that that happens, and the first time you
took a flight you probably thought of it that way, but you probably haven’t thought of it
that way since. That’s the power of adaptation: it can undermine gratitude.
So, what’s my solution to these two problems, the headwind/tailwind asymmetry and the remarkable
power of adaptation? My partial solution comes from research I had been doing before I started
to shift toward gratitude, having to do with the amount of enduring satisfaction and gratification
you get out of experiential consumption or material consumption. The thesis behind that
work is captured in this NewYorker cartoon, a very simple cartoon that makes it as a cartoon
because we know that that’s ridiculous.No one would be on their death bed wishing that
they had bought more stuff, and yet, we might bewishing we had had more experiences. We
do get more enduring gratification out of our experiences than our material possessions.
All of us have limited budgets; we have to make decisions: should we spend on this enduring
thing, or should we spend it more on this transitory experience? That’s the thrust of
the research. Today, I want to talk about it in the context
of what experiential or material consumption can do to foster gratitude. So, let’s consider
that first barrier to gratitude: the headwind/tailwind asymmetry, and
simply ask “Which makes a better story? A tale about a strong headwind or a tale about
a strong tailwind?” The answer, of course, is obvious: all literature is about overcoming
barriers and obstacles.There’s no arc if it’s just a story about a tailwind. Now, you could
say “Well, this is going to increase the problem.” We’re going to tell more experiential stories
about the headwinds, but the interesting thing about stories is, yeah, you’re talking about
a problem, but in the talking about it, they become less of a problem. You’ve all experienced
the vacation or camping trip from hell that was awful in a whole bunch of ways, but you
keep telling the story and, over time, it becomes the hilarious vacation from hell.You’re
turning that headwind that’s something problematic into something more beneficial, and something
that might provoke and promote gratitude. Do people tend to talk more about their experiences
than their possessions? The answer is yes. If you ask… we did several studies on this;
[in] one, we just asked Cornell students to think of a significant material and experiential
purchase they’d made over the last certain period of time, we used different time intervals,
and then they’re asked “How often have you talked about it?,” and if you’d had an informal
conversation like we’ve had several times here today, and you didn’t know what to say,
and you had to fill that social gap somehow, would you reach for your experiential story
or your material story, and I think you know what the answer to that is: people are more
likely, they report they’ve talked more about their experiences than their possessions,
and they would talk more about their experiences than their possessions.
Does that work for them? That is, when you tell stories of experiences versus the things
that you have,how does that go? Well, you can do simple studies where you bring two
strangers together, and you direct them: have a get-acquainted conversation, but you’re
restricted to talking about experiences or you’re restricted to talking about a recent
material purchase. Afterwards, you pull them apart and you have them rate “How much did
you enjoy this conversation? How much did you enjoy each other?”What you find is that
they enjoy the conversation more when you talk about experiences you’ve had and they
enjoy one another more when they’ve talked about their experiences. You can talk about
material goods your friends give you, [there’s] some latitude to do so, but there’s a pretty
short leash. Ifyou talk too much about the new BMW, you’re just going to lose your audience.
You can talk more about the trip to New Zealand longer, and you still have your audience.
So, through the stories that we tell, which are a more integral part of our experiences
than our possessions, it helps to overcome this first headwind/tailwind barrier.
What about the second barrier, which is the power of adaptation? The question becomes
“You spend your money very well, when you buy things as well as when you buy possessions,
so you’re probably going to be happy– happier, as a result of having spent that money?” How
long does that happiness last? Does it last longer when you purchase an experience, rather
than a possession? From studies like this [see slide], you can see that, again, people
spend their money well; they’re made happier by the money they spend on either thing and
they’re about equally so: ask them “How happy were you when you purchased this experiential
or material purchase?,” they were equally happy. If you ask them down the road, and
as you can see, there’s a drop off on the gratification you get from your material possession,
and if anything, it goes in the opposite direction. The experiential gifts that you give yourself
are gifts that keep on giving, they become even better over time.
Why do… the interesting psychological question, the one that we want to focus on, is “Why
do experiences provide more enduring satisfaction and (as we’ll see) more gratitude than material
purchases?” One is, as we’ve already seen, they yield more and better stories: you talk
about them and part of our enjoyment of things are looking forward to them, experiencing
them, and then remembering and talking about them. We get more remembered conversation
value out of our experiences than our possessions. They become a bigger part of who you are:
you may relate intensely to your material goods, you may think they are a big part of
you, but still, they’re out there. They aren’t ultimately a part of you, whereas, your experiences
really are who you are. In fact, arguably, you are the sum total of your experiences.
So, your experiences are closer and they connect us more to other people. All o fthose things
ought to make the experiences more enduring; those are also the very kinds of things tha
tare going to produce more gratitude. Do they? Well, you can do surveys: the data
in front of you right now [see slide] reinforces the story has been known now for about ten
years. You ask people to recall a material or experiential purchase. They find more gratification
out of the experiential purchase than the material purchase. If you ask them”How grateful
were you for that?,” even the material goods that we really like a lot… [the response
is]”That was exciting, that was fun”… you’re really not grateful in the same way that you
are for an experience that you’ve had. Another way to assess this is to look at reviews
of material and experiential products. We surveyed reviews on a bunch of material and
experiential websites, and you just have people code them for how favorable are they, how
excited I am about the trip or the thing that I have bought, and how grateful I am, and
what you find is people express much more gratitude about experiential purchases than
material purchases. Another way to look at this, it’s been shown that people who undergo
a gratitude induction, as we saw earlier, become more generous, more pro-social, they
give to other people more.Well, if that’s true, and this promotes gratitude, if we have
people think about a gratifying experiential purchase, do they become more generous, and
the answer is ‘yes.’ You put people through a dictator game, where they can divide money
between themselves and another person, if they’ve just been reminded of an experiential
purchase, they are more generous. They give away more money than if they’ve just been
reminded of a material good. So, consistent evidence across different waves
of measuring it, that people are more grateful after thinking about their gratifying experiential
things rather than material things. I’ve talked about all of this on an individual basis,
but what’s true of us? How should we spend our money, should we tilt experientially or
materially, is also true of us as a society. You are not only consumers, you are voters,and
it’s governments that provide an experiential infrastructure. You can’t have these kinds
of gratifying experiences, you can’t go out bike riding, or hiking, if there aren’t trails.
You can’t have gratifying experiences at the beaches or national parks if they’re all falling
apart, and the experiential infrastructure in the United States is decaying. No question
about it, and therefore, one of the messages of this research that I hope you all take
with you is “Remember it at the ballot box.” We do need to invest more in our experiential
infrastructure. Thank you very much.


  • Reply raffaella paci December 28, 2014 at 3:36 pm

    If we show gratitudine because we will feel better and have a better health, ourselves, that is a fake gratitude, selfishness in disguise!

  • Reply Tara Tiger Brown June 30, 2018 at 7:05 am

    I particularly appreciated the end to Dr. Gilovich's talk when he reminded us that as tax payers and voters, we need to ensure that the money that's being spent is going towards infrastructure that provides us with parks and beaches and trails so we can experience the great outdoors where other research shows also makes us happier. Vote for your hard earned tax dollars to be spent on experiences.

  • Reply Brad Crampton December 26, 2018 at 12:32 am

    super good. thanks.

  • Reply I Hate Living in Apartments August 1, 2019 at 11:11 pm

    Damn I’m not following this ha 🤔

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