Better Than Willpower

A new book argues that reason and perseverance aren’t enough. Instead, three emotions are the secret to getting things done.

Will Bruin and Gustav Svensson exchange a high-five in their soccer uniforms.
Will Bruin and Gustav Svensson of the Seattle Sounders celebrate a goal in a November 2017 soccer game. (USA Today Sports / Reuters)

Willpower, reason, and executive-functioning skills all seem like ingredients in the recipe for success. So why, then, have so many of us already abandoned our New Year’s resolutions, and it’s not even February yet?

According to Emotional Success, a new book by the Northeastern University psychology professor David DeSteno, it’s because we’re going about pursuing our goals in the wrong way.

Instead of putting our noses ever closer to the grindstone, he advocates relying on so-called social emotions—gratitude, compassion, and pride—to get things done. These emotions, he says, naturally encourage self-control and patience.

They do so by combating people’s tendency to value the present over the future. When we feel grateful, compassionate toward ourselves and others, and proud of our abilities, the struggle to work hard for future rewards becomes, well, less of a struggle.

I recently spoke with DeSteno about his book and research. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Olga Khazan: Can you walk me through what’s wrong with thinking willpower and reason are enough to achieve our goals?

David DeSteno: The ability to value the future more than the present, to persevere, and to face temptation and delay gratification is an essential ingredient in success. My argument is the way we’re going about doing that is problematic.

The problem with willpower is it’s effortful to keep your attention focused on something that is difficult, while you’re trying to repress desires not to do it. It’s also very biased. That is, we can talk ourselves into why it’s okay for us to eat the Ben and Jerry’s, to buy the new iPhone X instead of putting money away for retirement, and then we don’t even use willpower in the first place.

Over time, we see that people tend to fail [when using willpower alone], especially when they’re tired or stressed. It’s New Year’s, so by January 8, 25 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail.

Khazan: So how are pride, compassion, and gratitude better?

DeSteno: If you think about what the origins of self-control were, they have nothing to do with maximizing your 401(k), completing the Whole 30, or not eating the first marshmallow in front of you. What self-control arose for was to help us keep social relationships.

For millennia, that’s what ensured survival—the ability to form cooperative relationships with people. To do that, you have to be fair, you have to be generous, you have to be honest. You have to have compassion, empathy, and support other people. Basically, you have to be willing to cooperate. Cooperation requires self-control.

What you’re basically doing when you cooperate, is you’re accepting some sacrifice in the moment, not earning as much as you could, or helping somebody else move on a day you don’t really want to help them.

What I’ve found is that these emotions actually ease the way to self-control, because they prevent the mind from devaluing the future. They attenuate what economists call “temporal discounting.” They make people value the future more than they normally would, which makes it easier to persevere toward eating broccoli instead of eating Ben and Jerry’s ... or whatever it may be.

These emotions ease the way to self-control because you’re not fighting a desire, you’re changing what you desire in the first place. They’re making you desire the future more. They’re associated with lower heart rate, better sleep, better immune response—they’re just better for your body.

These emotions, using David Brooks’s term, get rid of the dichotomy between your “résumé virtues,” those that you need to succeed in your career, and your “eulogy” ones, those that you want to be remembered for. [In studies,] if you take people and you make them feel grateful, simply by having them recall a time that they were grateful for something, we double their level of self-control.

Khazan: How did you come up with these three emotions, in particular? Why not other positive emotions like, say, forgiveness or happiness?

DeSteno: I’m not saying these are the only ones, but these are the most powerful ones in terms of social exchange and cooperation, to foster self-control.

One big distinction between positive emotions [like happiness] and the emotions I’m talking about, is that they have to be social or moral emotions. I could be happy, but I can be happy for lots of things, not just cooperative interactions with other people.

Pride always seems the odd one out to people. The thing about pride is, it’s if you have some skill that those around you admire, and that makes you want to hone it. Why? Because you’re working hard to develop a skill that makes you valuable to other people.

Khazan: How do you cultivate only the good kind of pride, versus being a huge narcissist?

DeSteno: When we start assuming that we are good at everything, or we’re experiencing it in areas we shouldn’t or to too high a degree, then it becomes narcissism, which is a disorder. It’s like any other emotion out of whack.

The trick is, is to experience it [as] tied to skills and abilities that you have or that you’re trying to develop. In that sense, it can be a huge source of motivation.

Khazan: Are there any tips for cultivating these things if they don’t come naturally to you? The advice to “cultivate gratitude” I always find difficult, because when you’re pissed off about something, it’s hard to sit there and be like, “I’m so grateful for this challenge.”

DeSteno: One thing we tell people to do is to daily do a gratitude journal. The problem is, if you think about the same three things every day [to be grateful for], they’re going to lose their power and you’re going to habituate to them.

What you have to do is think of the little things. You don’t have to have a huge level of gratitude ... we show [effects] at very moderate levels. Think about someone who held the door for you, who let you into traffic on the highway, who stopped to give you directions, gave you their seat on the subway. Little things like that daily, reflecting on these things ups your level of gratitude.

What we found is that over three weeks’ time, people who have higher levels of gratitude, in a situation like a marshmallow test, show greater self-control.

Compassion, there’s two ways to do it. One is practicing mindfulness meditation. We have lots of work showing that practicing meditation increases people’s compassionate responses to themselves and to others. Takes 10 minutes a day.

Another way to do it is to perspective-take. That is, try actively, once a day at least, to put yourself in someone else’s shoes to try and see the world from their point of view, and to empathize with them.

For pride, take pride in little steps along the way. That is, don’t set a goal and only feel proud when you get there. Take pride in your steps along the way, and allow yourself to feel that.

Emotions are contagious ... if you can begin to show these emotions, others will catch them. That is, if I’m feeling compassionate, and I see you’re having a rough day, I may do something to help you, which will then make you feel grateful to me and help me back. It becomes a reinforcing chain.

The work by Martin Nowak at Harvard shows that over time, the individuals who garner the most resources are the individuals who are trusting, cooperative, and show empathy.

It doesn’t mean that you have to be foolish about it. It doesn’t mean that you’re always going to have be cooperative, or feel empathy for every person even if they continue to screw you over. But it does mean in general, people who are willing to feel these emotions and cooperate and be fair and honest have the best outcomes over time, because they build a network that is supportive.

These emotions not only give us the grit to persevere, they give us the grace to build social capital, to build relationships, and to draw others to us.

Khazan:  You recommended writing letters to our future selves. What would you put in that letter, and how exactly does that foster self-compassion?

DeSteno: The idea there is when we see our future self, this is the real person who we’re going to be, and if we see that person as sad, [we think], “I don’t want me to feel like that someday.” If I’m compassionate for my future self, I’m not going to buy the iPhone 10. I’m going to put that extra money in my retirement savings.

By pretending to have a discussion with your future self, or putting yourself in the shoes of your future self, it’s making that person more real to you, and therefore making it easier for you to feel compassion for that person.

Khazan: Also, you talk about altering our perceptions of other people as being an important component of this. Why would that matter?

DeSteno: We have a problem in American society of being too present-focused, right? We’re building up huge levels of debt, we’re having crumbling infrastructure, we’re doing all of these things because people want what they want in the moment.

The problem with motivating people to solve these problems is twofold. One is, each individual has to value the future more than the present. If I’m worried about climate change, and the way to do that is to have cleaner energy or lower my carbon footprint, I have to be willing to expect certain discomforts. Sacrifices in the moment ensure that we’ll have a better world down the line.

When we’re talking about things of scale, there’s a second problem. I can do all I want, but if Joe, my neighbor, and his friends aren’t sacrificing as well, then I’m a sucker, because climate change is still coming.

The important thing about these emotions is they not only make us willing to sacrifice to help other people, but they alter our views to see other people as more trustworthy. You may say, well, doesn’t that make us more gullible, or more likely to be taken advantage of? It can, if we’re the only ones doing this.

If we start to feel these emotions more widely within a culture, it solves that problem of thinking that other people are cheating and being free riders. It makes us more willing to invest, because we don’t feel like our investment is going to be co-opted or exploited by someone else. We all have to be willing to do it.