So how does a Buddhist monk help a Capitalist achieve more in business? The science tells us that mindfulness and meditation can help us practice gratitude, which helps us expand our capacity for self-control. This is one important reason why anyone can grow as a leader through mindfulness and meditation.
I’ve never thought of gratitude as a skill that can be developed. I’ve always believed gratitude is an emotion – just some concoction of chemicals in our body that make us feel a certain way. Moreover, I’ve never imagined that simply by practicing gratitude, we can learn how to gain more self-control over our emotions AND create a virtuous circle for ourselves whereby more gratitude leads to better objective outcomes for ourselves, which leads to even more gratitude. The psychology and science, though, clearly show that if we intentionally practice gratitude – taking time to appreciate beauty and the proverbial “little things” and to proactively express our thanks to others who contribute to our lives – then we can exert more self-control to enable better decision-making for the long term.
In his podcast, “Hidden Brain,” Shankar Vedantam explores how one habit, the practice of gratitude, can enable us to achieve our goals by gaining more self-control and how this habit of practicing gratitude can be learned. Vendantam opens with a classic story from Aesop’s Fables, The Ant and the Grasshopper. While the grasshopper spent the summer dancing and frolicking with friends, the ant toiled away in the fields to grow and harvest food for the winter. Ultimately, the grasshopper starved to death, while the ant had a comfortable winter snug in his den. This concept of delayed gratification, making short term sacrifices for long term gains, is well-known, but it’s hard to consistently make those sacrifices – studying for an extra hour, going for a run instead of sitting on the couch or spending less on material things we want now so that we can save for retirement down the road.
Some emotions, like gratitude, can play a crucial role in how we develop self-control. Vedantam interviews psychologist, David Testino, who discusses a simple study wherein people exercised more self-control by practicing gratitude. Testino found a strong correlation between people who are grateful and people who are more likely to choose delayed gratification (The grateful “test” group were people who had just reflected on something for which they were grateful). People in the control group, on average, traded $100 in a year for $17 now, whereas people who were more grateful, needed $31 now to give up the $100 in a year. The experiment proves the emotion of gratitude leads to better self-control.
We know that, as far as achieving things that are important to us, things like putting in the work to do well in school, learning an instrument, playing a sport, and eating healthy are important. In the podcast, Testino shares another experiment that proves how meditation can help us practice gratitude. This is where the Buddhist and the Capitalist meet…Half of the people in the study went through an eight-week meditation course taught by the monk, while the other half didn’t take the course. 51% of the people who took the course offered their seat in a waiting room to a woman struggling to stand up with crutches, whereas only 16% of those who did not take the course helped this person. The mindfulness gained through meditation – feeling present, curious and kind in a specific moment – accounts for this marked difference in behaviors. The meditation practice made people feel more grateful about their circumstances and more inclined to pay it forward.
It turns out we can develop more self-control and realize the benefits from self-control and delayed gratification by simply practicing gratitude. As a leader, I often have the privilege of kicking off meetings, and whenever I start a meeting expressing gratitude to someone, the tone and collaborative nature of the conversation create the conditions in which people can more likely solve problems. Whenever I start by citing a problem and trying to immediately jump into problem-solving, the conversation is just less productive. The fact that expressing gratitude can reduce stress and increase happiness has always been intuitive to me, but I never saw the connection between practicing gratitude and increasing my self-control. Nor did I realize I can increase my capacity for gratitude, that I can learn it as if it’s a skill, through meditation. Happily, the Buddhist monk has shown this capitalist a way to gain more self-control through meditation. I wish the same for you…