It’s a classic exper­i­ment: Sit a kid in front of a single marsh­mallow and tell him that if he waits a few min­utes to eat it, he can have two. The videos of these exper­i­ments are over­whelm­ingly enter­taining: The kids squirm in their seats, hide under the table, and sniff and even lick at the sugary delight. But what’s most amazing about the exper­i­ments is that the kids who suc­cess­fully stave off their desire to indulge have better long-​​term out­comes. They do better in school, in rela­tion­ships, and even have better health as adults.

Dozens of studies have shown sim­ilar results, according to North­eastern psy­chology pro­fessor David DeSteno. “The human mind clearly devalues future rewards,” he said. “At some level that makes sense because you never know if you’re going to be here in the future.”

But it’s also clear that the human mind does a little too much devaluing of the future, such that it often doesn’t make any sense at all. For instance, if I offer you $50 today or $100 in six months, the log­ical thing to do is wait. As DeSteno put it, “It would be quite dif­fi­cult to find that kind of return on your invest­ment.” But people don’t usu­ally wait, because denying imme­diate grat­i­fi­ca­tion is hard. It’s tough to say no to ice cream or hold off pur­chasing items on credit.

That’s why the old adage—that patience is a virtue—has stuck around so long. From the early Eng­lish philoso­phers to present day psy­chol­o­gists, it’s been thought the best way to cul­ti­vate patience is to combat desire, tamp down the pas­sions, and ignore your emo­tions. Unsur­pris­ingly, this has led to the notion that we must quell our emo­tions if we want to be patient.

In a forth­coming paper in the journal Psy­cho­log­ical Sci­ence, DeSteno and his col­leagues show that indeed there is another way, one that chal­lenges some of our oldest held beliefs about patience.

It’s our view that humans pos­sess the capacity for emo­tion because it serves adap­tive pur­poses,” DeSteno said. “That doesn’t mean that some­times emo­tions can’t lead you astray. They can, but so can reason.”

DeSteno’s team wanted to see whether patience could be cul­ti­vated through emo­tional mech­a­nisms instead of willpower. So they looked to gratitude.

What does grat­i­tude really do? It usu­ally reminds me that I owe you some­thing back, ”DeSteno said. “It’s an emo­tion that make us take costs in the moment in return for ben­e­fits down the line.”

To test whether grat­i­tude really does improve our patience, specif­i­cally in the con­text of finan­cial rewards, his team con­ducted a simple exper­i­ment. They evenly assigned 75 people to one of three con­di­tions. One group had to recall an event that made them feel grateful. The second thought of an event that made them happy. And the final group con­sid­ered the events of a typ­ical day. Each wrote about the memory for five minutes.

Next the par­tic­i­pants answered survey ques­tions designed to help DeSteno’s team deter­mine what emo­tion they were actu­ally expe­ri­encing in the moment of the test. As expected, the people who recalled an expe­ri­ence of grat­i­tude were feeling more grateful than the rest and those who recalled a happy moment felt happier.

Finally, the par­tic­i­pants were asked to make 27 sep­a­rate choices about receiving a sum of money now or a larger sum in the future. And just as DeSteno and his team sus­pected, the group that felt grateful during the exper­i­ment required a larger amount of imme­diate cash than their peers to con­vince them to forego the larger future value.

DeSteno’s team believes this is the first study to show how cul­ti­vating an emo­tion can actu­ally lead to more patience. As such, it opens the door to “easier, less effortful interventions—ones that don’t rely on willpower,” DeSteno said.

For example, “if people get in a daily prac­tice of doing a grat­i­tude diary, it should but­tress their patience or impulse con­trol during the day,” he explained. “Or when you’re faced with a chal­lenging temp­ta­tion in the moment, rather than solely trying to exert willpower, simply stop­ping and thinking of some­thing you’re grateful for should enhance your ability to make a wiser decision.”