Gratefully Sustainable

    With Christmas around the corner, up here in the Nordics, we are all impatiently mounting advent decorations this week, eager for those feeble lights to dispel the darkness of the season. Meanwhile, in a country far, far away, across the ocean, the descendants of pilgrims and various other immigrants are not quite ready to plunge into the yuletide yet. There is another holiday to observe and another feast to devour there before Santa season can begin in earnest. And, as much as I love counting down the days to Christmas the Nordic way, I can never resist paying my tributes to the admirable Yankee tradition of counting one’s blessings this time of the year.

    So, I would like to dedicate the Snap this week to Thanksgiving. Don’t worry, though. This will not be another ‘How to have a more sustainable Thanksgiving’-article, even though I’m grateful that the theme has been trending in the US for a few years now. The more turkeys get pardoned this week, the better, of course.

    Instead, I will treat you to some recent research shedding light on the link between gratitude and sustainability. In a paper published by the American Psychological Association (Gratitude reduces consumption of depleting resources), Shanyu Kates and David DeSteno from Northeastern University suggest that when people give thanks, they’re less likely to overdraw from a steadily diminishing pool of shared resources.

    The problem that Kates and her scientific advisor DeSteno set up to explore is an old one. They are simply looking for possible ways to avoid the worst outcomes of what is known as the ‘tragedy of the commons.’ The economic theory behind it postulates that individuals tend to exploit shared resources such that the demand greatly outweighs supply, and subsequently, the resource becomes unavailable for the whole[1]. In short, the question is: What would happen if every shepherd, acting in their own self-interest, allowed their flock to graze on the common field? Worst-case scenario, all the grass gets gobbled up, to the detriment of everyone.

    The psychologists from Northeastern University conducted several fun experiments on hordes of undergraduate students. First, they would induce the feeling of gratitude in one group by having them write about a time when they felt grateful. The remaining control-group students, meanwhile, wrote about events from a typical day. Then all the participants would play a game where they had to decide how many resource points to extract from a common pool, knowing that the likelihood to win a $200 cash prize increased with the number of points they extracted.

    The results? Control-group participants took significantly more points from the pool when they saw it draining rapidly. Grateful participants, however, took about the same number of points no matter how quickly the pool was shrinking. The results were different when the psychologists repeated the experiment, inducing a feeling of happiness rather than gratitude in one group of participants. Feeling happy, it turns out, didn’t inspire people to show the same kind of restraint as feeling thankful.

    “Sustainability really requires action for future benefit as well as collective benefit,”explains Kates. “Gratitude promotes these dimensions—it makes us behave more pro-socially, and it makes us more cooperative with others.”

    So, thank you, dear readers! And keep counting those blessings of yours, for the planet as well as for your own sanity!

    Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

    [1] Fun fact, Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel prize in economics, in 2009, was able to debunk this popular theory, which was originally outlined by ecologist Garrett Hardin, documenting many places around the world where communities have cooperated successfully to govern common resources and ensure that they remain viable for current and future inhabitants.

    Julia Axelsson, CAIA
    Julia Axelsson, CAIA
    Julia has accumulated experience in asset management for more than 20 years in Stockholm and Beijing, in portfolio management, asset allocation, fund selection and risk management. In December 2020, she completed a program in Sustainability Studies at the University of Linköping. Julia speaks Mandarin, Bulgarian, Hindi, Russian, Swedish, Urdu and English. She holds a Master in Indology from Sofia University and has completed studies in Economics at both Stockholm University and Stockholm School of Economics.

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