OPINION | SAVE YOURSELF: Thank, then think about retirement; gratitude rewards

Do you struggle finding the willpower to save for retirement? Try practicing gratitude.

Last week I attended the Power of the Purse luncheon for the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas. One of the honorees, Beverly Morrow, profiled beautifully in High Profile two weeks ago, said something that bears repeating and fleshing out.

First on Morrow. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Rutgers grad with a Master’s in Chemical Engineering and very successful McDonald’s franchise co-owner with her husband, she is the kind of person you want to pay close attention to when she speaks. My husband and I each own businesses, and nuggets of wisdom from people who have walked that walk successfully are rare gems for us.

That’s why I found it unusual enough to turn to Dr. Google after Beverly answered the question, “What is the most valuable piece of advice you have ever received?”

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She answered, “Always be grateful no matter what. Even when times are bad, there is always something to be grateful for.”

Huh? Shouldn’t the answer have been about striving for a better EBITDA [earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization] or the secret strategy for employee retention? Her best advice for life was — gratitude?

The concept of gratitude is not foreign to me. I have seen the gratitude journals and the gratitude yoga practices, and an assortment of gratitude programs. Why dedicate journaling time to gratitude when I could be putting pen to paper on a new business idea or commit pages to working out anger and resentment to all who have underestimated, dismissed, stood in my way, and unfairly judged me? Now that’s some productive journaling right there.

But when Morrow speaks, I listen, and I Google. It turns out that gratitude is pretty good for us in a lot of ways, but what grabbed my attention was the relationship between gratitude and money. Turns out, it is pretty strong.

The Journal of Positive Psychology in 2015 published a study entitled “Looking for happiness in all the wrong places: The moderating role of gratitude and affect in the materialism — life satisfaction relationship.”

The study begins by confirming the negative relationship between happiness and materialism. This is something we know intellectually but still succumb to the traps. So let’s start by getting on the same page on defining materialism: it’s making the acquisition of “stuff” your life’s ambition.

No one wants to identify with materialism, but we are a materialistic culture. Our dreams are often intertwined with the acquisition of things. Even vacations can become materialistic these days as they become less about getting away and experiencing new places and more about creating the perfect “Instagrammable” moment.

If this isn’t you, congratulations! But folks, it probably is you. It’s me.

I have admitted here many times just a small percentage of what I want to buy for so many reasons, most inauthentic to who I am.

We buy “stuff” for all kinds of reasons, but many times it’s when we are feeling a little less self-esteem than we’d wish. Maybe we don’t do it consciously but where do we think the term “retail therapy” comes from?

Short-term purchases will light up the brain for a short period, but the effects wear off as our brains reach balance again. We settle back into whatever original problem we were trying to solve. And, if we have made these purchases with “borrowed dollars,” we end up adding a new kind of stress: financial. So, what’s the fix?

According to James Roberts the fix is gratitude. Folks who were materialistic without gratitude exhibited lower life satisfaction. But folks with gratitude were happier people.

In another study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, Nathaniel Lambert, Frank Fincham, Tyler Stillman and Lukas Dean made the link that gratitude diminishes materialism. Gratitude helps us see the world from different perspectives and more fundamentally reinforces positivity and social connections. The study found that these feelings of gratitude reduced materialism. Why? People were more satisfied with life.

But my question is how gratitude that makes us more satisfied with life can then make us more amenable to saving for retirement.

Shankar Vidantam asked psychologist David DeSteno on the Hidden Brain podcast to explain the link between gratitude and self-control. Remember, self-control is critical to saving money.

In his study, DeSteno tested self-control in a similar manner as using the famous marshmallow tests on toddlers. Except, for these adult subjects he used money. The test was simple. He asked: “Would you rather have x dollars now or y dollars in z days, where y was always greater than x and z varied over days to weeks to months?”

The basic result was that people were pretty impatient. “People were willing, as an example, to accept $17 now and forgo $100 a year from now. In other words, I guarantee you $100 in a year, but would you be willing to give that up if I gave you $17 now?”

Most people took the $17 now.

But asking participants to do a simple act of reflecting on what they were grateful for nearly doubled (to $31) what they would take now to give up the future $100.

In other words, “it basically doubled their self-control.” When they ran the experiment asking people to recall something good or happy, what was the dollar amount they would take to give up $100? $17 again.

Gratitude, folks. This is a powerful tool that doesn’t distract the mind — it alters it.

So how do you practice gratitude? Beverly offers a simple solution to recall and think of all the reasons to be grateful in your life, in good times and in bad.

If this seems obvious, it’s not! If I experience a negative event and call my girlfriend to vent, I don’t want her to ask me to rapid fire list the 10 things I am grateful for! But that’s just what we have to do, especially when our emotions try to convince us that there is not much to be grateful for.

But wait, there’s more. We can develop a practice of gratitude and one of the best ways to do this is through gratitude journaling. Turns out there is a little science to this form of journaling.

According to the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley gratitude journaling is best done a couple days a week — a daily practice can be overkill and make you numb to the practice — and should be focused on people and be detailed in the description of how they benefited our lives. Also, remember that these people and experiences are gifts so we don’t fall into the trap of taking them for granted.

My own interpretation of this practice is that we can continuously wash gratitude over ourselves and drown out negative emotions. According to DeSteno, we think emotions are about the past, but they aren’t. They are about the future. Gratitude is the steering wheel of the car — we can let negative emotions drive us to get our quick fix of retail therapy or we can let gratitude steer us to a walk in the woods or quality time with friends or family or even an impromptu planning session to get around a difficult barrier or obstacle with fresh ideas.

As DeSteno says, “By making people feel grateful, it alters the way their brain assigned value as a function of time. Suddenly rewards that were delayed, that were further in the future, seemed more attractive than they normally would, without having to engage in any type of corrective strategy.”

In other words, gratitude can be more powerful than some of the brain tricks we have discussed in past columns like hiding money in an account or using automation to sneak money behind our own backs into saving. Instead, gratitude creates a direct link from our current self to hope in our future self and future situation — that hope becomes worth funding, for instance, when it comes to saving for retirement.

When threatened by hard times, Morrow makes the case that “being grateful changes my attitude and gives me hope.” Gratitude helps us weather the storms that can sabotage our dreams for the future.

So quick, think of something you are grateful for. Next, consider your future you, namely a retired you. Do you have hope that it is possible? Great. Now go fund it.

Sarah Catherine Gutierrez is founder, partner and CEO of Aptus Financial in Little Rock. She is also author of the book “But First, Save 10: The One Simple Money Move That Will Change Your Life,” published by Et Alia Press. Contact her at sc@aptusfinancial.com.