The power of gratitude in uncertain times

See how gratitude can improve your wellbeing and money decisions.

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Key takeaways: 4 things you can do to help deal with anxiety and stress

  1. Engage in daily gratitude reflections (to get started, take our new Gratitude Quiz below).
  2. Keep a daily gratitude journal.
  3. Meditate to achieve greater compassion and reduce your own anxiety.
  4. Check your current fears; focus on long-term goals.

Sometimes the simple things in life, like being grateful for everyday things, can go a long way in helping people cope with uncertainty.

Fidelity's Alexandra Taussig recently chatted with Northeastern University psychology professor David DeSteno about how gratitude can play a positive role in our everyday lives, including how we make decisions about money. Here are highlights from the conversation.

People are feeling so many emotions right now, especially when it involves our family's health, our job situations, savings and investing. What impact does fear and anxiety have on our decision making?

DeSteno: There's a really good reason for people to feel some fear and anxiety these days. So if you're feeling that, that's okay. That's a valid thing. But when fear is too intense or when it's combined with a lack of expert knowledge, it can lead to some problematic decisions and behaviors.

When you feel fear, it makes every threat seem much more likely to happen. For example, if you're feeling fear and you sneeze right now, that fear is going to make you feel that it may be the coronavirus, but the sneeze is more likely related to your seasonal allergies. Or if you wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, you think, "Maybe I didn't do it right. Maybe I should do it for 40 seconds." This thinking can bleed over into other areas.

Fear can make us think that the stock market is going to keep going down or that it will never come back to where it was before. This thinking can happen when we don't have expert knowledge. Most of us can't think like a virologist and a lot of us don't have the expert knowledge of a financial planner. That gives more room for fear to fill in the blanks. What that can do is create an upward spiral where we're feeling overwhelmed and almost helpless at times.

Can you share some of your insights about fear and investing?

DeSteno: What fear does is draw our attention in a way where our timescale is very close. If you look at human evolution, it makes sense that you're feeling fear when there's an immediate threat. Our brains didn't evolve in an environment where long-term investing was ever a thing we could do. So the narrowing of our time focus from fear can lead us to make decisions that aren't appropriate for things that happen over longer timescales.

Investing is a long-term strategy. Our emotions, including fear, are not designed to deal with long-term challenges. When you're calm, you are better able to deal with forward-looking emotional states. You can think about your investing decisions without reacting to current threats or making bad decisions, like selling when the market is down, because you are currently experiencing fear.

Let's talk about gratitude and compassion and how we can cultivate those feelings now.

DeSteno: You can get through almost anything if you know when it's going to end. Uncertainty clearly leads to greater anxiety. But the one thing we know is that emotions that are forward-looking, things like gratitude or compassion, can make individuals willing to sacrifice in the moment for a future gain.

Fidelity's Gratitude Exercise

Take our 2-minute gratitude exercise which helps you reflect on aspects of your life that you are most grateful for.

If you've done something nice for me, the gratitude I feel toward you will make me more likely to want to pay you back over the long term and return those favors. That's important right now for social distancing because we have to suppress our own immediate desires to want to go out and do something fun, rather than stay home. So those forward-looking emotions will help us do that.

Our research shows that you can also pivot those emotions to make you not only want to sacrifice for other people, but to do it for your own future self. For example, in our work on gratitude, we ask individuals to take a few moments to think about what they are grateful for in their life. Then we give them investing decisions to make. What we see is that gratitude makes them more willing to accept short-term costs for longer-term gains in their financial decisions.

The same goes for compassion. You may feel better about helping an elderly neighbor who doesn't know how to order their food online versus just giving money to that person. Gratitude and compassion are emotions that help us have the patience to ride out difficult periods in a way that will be better for our own long-term wellbeing.

Let's talk a little bit about what we are both grateful for.

DeSteno: I'm grateful for my family right now and that we're all safe right now. I'm grateful that I get to work with a with a research lab where we get to focus our efforts on trying to figure out how emotions impact people and then how we can we can get that knowledge out to the world to help a lot of people.

Taussig: I'm grateful we're in Boston where it's a beautiful 60 degree day. I'm grateful that my 15 year-old son actually asked me to go for a walk this morning. If you have teenagers, you know that's a big deal. What are some ways to cultivate feelings of gratitude?

DeSteno: Here are 3 ways that come to mind.

  1. Take a moment, think about all the people who love you or have helped you get where you are and focus on that. In our studies, taking little instances-5 minutes-to think about what you're grateful for in life, produces all these effects that I'm talking about. It makes you willing to pay it forward to help other people. It makes our research participants willing to favor long-term investing strategies rather than short term. It increases people's ability to get better sleep at night and even reduces their stress. The trick to remember is that every day when you do this, you can't think of the same 3 things because eventually they will lose their power. We find value in even simple reflections, like somebody who let me onto the freeway today, or who gave me directions; those things work just as well.
  2. The second thing is do a reciprocity ring either with your family or with others. Have people make a list of what they need help with and post it on your refrigerator or do it virtually online. Then have everybody volunteer to do one of those tasks. What this does is makes it okay to ask for help and okay to receive help and encourages everyone to experience gratitude, which makes them want to continue to pay these favors forward and to keep that cycle going.
  3. The third thing is to engage in meditation, which is easy to do on your own or with an app online. What we found in our lab is that after 3 weeks of meditation, people begin to show and experience greater compassion in their daily lives. They are more willing to help others and are more willing to do things for their own future. It's a way to calm your own anxiety that also increases your willingness to help other people and to accept the sacrifice, such as social distancing right now.

Taussig: I keep a gratitude journal which I find incredibly helpful, and it only takes 1 to 2 minutes a day. Do you recommend that practice and can you share any final thoughts?

DeSteno: Yes, gratitude journals are very useful to many people. Overall, I would encourage people to use some of the techniques we've discussed to curate their own emotional states, which can give you some peace and joy, keep you focused on the long term and help you make better decisions. Emotions are powerful; we can use them as tools.

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