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Nov 23, 2022

How Gratitude Can Help Solve Humanity’s Biggest Challenges

Gratitude is one of our most powerful tools for building a flourishing society and planet. 

By Dave DeSteno

When we think about Thanksgiving, a host of images immediately come to mind — football, turkey, the parade, family — yet we rarely think about the meaning of the word, an act of giving thanks. We should pay more attention to it — and not just one day a year — because gratitude is one of our most powerful tools for building a flourishing society and planet. 

Research demonstrates that when people are grateful, they engage in a range of positive behaviors and are better equipped to confront shared existential risks such as climate change.

Before examining why gratitude is so powerful, it’s important to be specific about what gratitude is and is not. Simply put, gratitude is the emotion we feel when someone or something has helped us achieve a goal or given us a benefit. When someone recognizes they’ve achieved something they couldn’t easily achieve on their own, they feel gratitude for it. There’s an important difference between this feeling of gratitude and feeling indebted. We’ve all experienced indebtedness at some point. Someone gives you a gift, for instance, and you feel like now you must give something in exchange or repay the favor in some way. In this case, the gift or favor feels more like a burden; it’s something you wouldn’t have sought. 

Gratitude is different, because it is a positive feeling, not an aversive one. An act that evokes gratitude demonstrates that the giver values the receiver because there has to be some cost or effort involved in bestowing the benefit. So, when a company automatically gives every employee the same gift for ten years of service, for instance, that’s not really going to elicit a lot of gratitude. However, if they do something for you as an individual, and it involves some sacrifice on their part — whether it's money, time, or effort — you feel this positive emotion, which we call gratitude.

In recent years, there’s been significant scientific research on gratitude, and one key thing we have learned is that when people feel this emotion, it encourages them not only to pay things back to the person they feel grateful to, but also to pay things forward. When you’re feeling grateful, it’s a cue to the mind to be helpful and cooperative in that moment. And in both cases, those feelings of gratitude build social relationships. When we pay it back, we’re being a good partner. But when we pay it forward to someone else in need, we’re establishing a new bond that will pay dividends as time progresses. 

This network effect, where a feeling of gratitude causes people to pass it on and build new relationships, is an incredible tool for human flourishing. After all, social support is an important ingredient for humans to thrive. But If we can cultivate this virtue, there’s also another benefit: it causes other virtues to spring forth. By encouraging gratitude in ourselves or in someone else, it ripples outwards in a community and in society. Gratitude isn’t just good at cultivating gratitude in other people, it also triggers a host of other virtuous behaviors.

Our research shows that when people feel grateful, they also become more honest. For example, in experiments where we give people the opportunity to earn more money by cheating, a feeling of gratitude cuts the rate of cheating by a third. Likewise, when we give subjects the opportunity to be generous, a feeling of gratitude increases the generosity they demonstrate towards others. People who are grateful are also more patient, and it increases what they’re willing to sacrifice in terms of momentary pleasure to achieve long-term gains. Gratitude gives us grit and makes us willing to work hard at something right now in the present for future gain, rather than wanting immediate gratification.

When we think about people persevering in difficult situations, such as a single parent who is working two jobs to put their kid through college or the grandparent who has emphysema and drags an oxygen tank behind them to see their granddaughters first theatrical play, they often do  these difficult things not because they think they should, but because they feel they should. Because they love the people they’re helping. Emotions can be a major source of motivation – one stronger than willpower alone. Gratitude works in the same way. Cultivating it can make seemingly hard choices easier. 

All of this sounds nice, of course, but it's also vital for the flourishing of humanity and our planet. Many of the choices we need to make as a species to survive are difficult in that they require us to accept sacrifices and be future oriented. But here, too, data indicates that gratitude can make a difference. It makes people behave in a more sustainable way. As one example, we’ve found that gratitude helps prevent the tragedy of the commons wherein people exploit a finite, shared resource out of their own selfishness, rather than managing it for the collective good. We’ve seen this time and again with everything from fisheries to rainforests to cheap, carbon-based energy. However, our new research demonstrates that if people feel grateful, they continue to act in a very cooperative way even if the people around them start to increase their rate of selfishly extracting resources from a common pool.

Now it’s true that if only a few people cultivate gratitude and act accordingly, they might be exploited by more selfish others. But if we as a society can cultivate enough gratitude in enough of the population, we can reach a tipping point where people are more willing to cooperate and not exploit resources selfishly. If you are able to make gratitude — and cooperation around resources — a norm, then even people who aren’t feeling grateful will still act cooperatively because it is the norm. Imagine the difference in climate negotiations if everyone approached them with a feeling of gratitude for the earth and each other. If we can increase the gratitude that we all feel, we will collectively become a more patient, more forward-looking, more cooperative society.

This article was edited by Benjamin Reeves. Reeves is New York-based writer, filmmaker and journalist. Learn more at or follow him on Twitter.