Gratitude is a strength of heart, and self-control is a strength of will.
David Brooks calls gratitude a eulogy strength — one others will fondly remember you for. Self-control, on the other hand, is what Brooks calls a resumé strength — one that helps you achieve your goals despite momentary temptations.
In data on adolescents, I’ve found that strengths of heart are related to friendship, whereas strengths of will are the clearest predictors of academic achievement.
But for a lot of reasons, the relationship between these strengths is a little more complicated. Here’s one: Gratitude facilitates self-control.
In one 2014 study, young adults were asked to write about an event that made them feel grateful. Compared to control groups asked to write about either a happy event or a typical day, young adults who reflected on gratitude preferred larger delayed rewards over smaller immediate rewards.
More recently, teens were randomly assigned to write four gratitude letters over four weeks. Compared to a control group, teens who expressed gratitude ate more fruits and vegetables and less junk food during the same period.
Why might gratitude facilitate self-control? The teens who wrote gratitude letters reported feeling less anxiety, worry, and other negative emotions — which in turn explained, at least in part, their improved eating habits.
Don’t leave gratitude behind after the winter holidays are over and you’ve rung in the new year.
Do count your blessings. Children and adults around the world rate themselves high in gratitude but low in self-control. This suggests that many of us can use a strength to build a weakness: Appreciating what we have now can forge a stronger bond with our future selves.
Angela Duckworth is cofounder and CEO of Character Lab and a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. You can sign up to receive her Tip of the Week — actionable advice about the science of character — at characterlab.org.