The Top 10 Insights from the “Science of a Meaningful Life” in 2014

The most surprising, provocative, and inspiring findings published this past year.

By Jeremy Adam Smith, Bianca Lorenz, Kira M. Newman, Lauren Klein, Lisa Bennett , Jason Marsh, Jill Suttie

It’s time once again for our favorite year-end ritual here at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center: Our annual list of the top scientific insights produced by the study of happiness, altruism, mindfulness, gratitude—what we call “the science of a meaningful life.”

We found that this year, the science of a meaningful life yielded many new insights about the relationship between our inner and outer lives. Cultivating mindfulness can make us more aware of knee-jerk prejudice against people who are different from us; believing that empathy is a skill helps overcome barriers to taking another person’s perspective; concern for others, even for animals, can move people to action for the greater good more quickly than focusing on ourselves.

But this year we also learned more about how to cultivate pro-social skills like gratitude—and we discovered how those skills can yield far-reaching benefits to our mental and physical well-being, and even to our pocketbooks.

With input from our staff, faculty, and some of the leading outside experts in our field, here are the 10 findings from 2014 that we anticipate will have an impact on both scientific research and on public debate for years to come.

Mindfulness can reduce racial prejudice—and possibly its effects on victims.

Racial bias in policing is at the forefront of our national news. So it was heartening this year to see a study that found bias could be reduced through training in mindfulness—the nonjudgmental moment-to-moment awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, and surroundings.

Adam Lueke and Brian Gibson of Central Michigan University looked at how instructing white college students in mindfulness would affect their “implicit bias”—or unconscious negative reactions—to black faces and faces of older people. After listening to a 10-minute mindfulness audiotape, students were significantly less likely to automatically pair negative descriptive words with black and elderly faces than were those in a control group—a finding that could be important for policing, which often involves split-second assessments of people.

Why the connection between mindfulness and bias? Mindfulness has the power to interrupt the link between past experience and impulsive responding, the authors speculate. This ability to be more discerning may explain why another study this year found that people who were high in mindfulness were less likely to sink into depression following experiences of discrimination.

As we reported back in 2009, numerous programs have successfully helped officers become aware of their own unconscious biases. But by specifically looking at the effects of mindfulness training—even just 10 minutes’ worth—these new studies point to innovative techniques that might help prevent fatal mistakes from being made in the future.

Gratitude makes us smarter in how we spend money.

For years, Greater Good has been reporting on the social, psychological, and physical benefits of gratitude. This year, research suggested that there might be profound economic benefits to a grateful mindset as well—which might pay emotional dividends down the line.

In one study, published in Psychological Science, researchers asked participants how much money they’d be willing to forgo in the present in order to receive a greater sum in the future—a measure of their self-control and financial patience. People prompted to feel grateful were willing to pass up significantly more cash than were people not feeling grateful, even if those less-grateful people were feeling other positive emotions. For instance, happy people were willing to sacrifice $100 in the future (one year later) in order to receive $18 in the present, but grateful people preferred to receive the larger, future payment; they only gave up that $100 when the amount offered to them right away reached $30.

The results suggest that gratitude reduces “excessive economic impatience” and strengthens self-control and the ability to delay gratification, according to the authors. This finding challenges the long-held notion that we must rein in our emotions in order to make smarter spending decisions; instead, it seems that consciously counting our blessings can serve our long-term economic interests.

Another study published this year, in Personality and Individual Differences, suggests that gratitude can guide us toward better decisions about what we actually choose to spend our money on. Participants who were more materialistic—meaning that they place a lot of importance on acquiring material possessions—reported lower feelings of gratitude and lower satisfaction with life. In fact, the researchers determined that materialists feel less satisfied with their lives mainly because they experience less gratitude. Their findings help to explain why, according to much previous research, materialistic people are less happy.

Prior research has also found that less happy people make more materialistic purchases, creating a vicious cycle. But the authors of this new study argue that gratitude can help break this cycle. Based on their results, they suggest that boosting one’s level of gratitude might reduce materialism and its negative effects on happiness.

So gratitude might not only encourage financial decisions that are better for our long-term economic health but better for our long-term emotional health as well.

It’s possible to teach gratitude to young children, with lasting effects.

One of parents’ biggest fears is that their child will become an entitled brat; one of their biggest questions is what they can do to prevent that.

This year research pointed to an answer. In a study published in School Psychology Review, psychologists Jeffrey Froh, Giacomo Bono, and their colleagues presented the encouraging results of a curriculum they developed to teach gratitude to elementary school students.

Instead of just lecturing about the importance of gratitude, the curriculum encourages kids to think about something nice that another person did for them, and to see that kindness as a “gift.” Through the curriculum, the students reflect on the value of the gift, the cost incurred by the person who gave it, and the kind intentions that motivated the gift.

The curriculum was taught to 8-11 year olds for half an hour every day for a week—and the kids started to show increases in gratitude just two days after the curriculum ended. When Froh and Bono offered the curriculum once a week or five weeks, they found that it increased gratitude and other positive emotions for at least five months.

Dozens of previous studies—many of which we have covered on Greater Good—have suggested that gratitude can combat feelings of entitlement and foster happiness. But only a small handful of these studies have examined the effects of gratitude on children, and the kids in Froh and Bono’s study were the youngest ever involved in a study of a gratitude program.

Their results offer hope that it’s actually