DeSteno argues that it’s not willpower that keeps us doing what we have to work hard to do – it’s emotions. In particular, he studied the role of gratitude, compassion, and pride in delaying rewards as well as helping others, and found that when people recalled a time they felt grateful, were made to feel proud of their accomplishments, or felt compassion, they showed more willpower in waiting for rewards, took on more leadership roles, and made more decisions to take on the burdens of others and helping them. He argues that, unlike simply trying to exert willpower, these emotions actually improve health by lowering heart rate and blood pressure and reducing the feelings of anxiety.
I agree with this column to a point. I still think that learning to exert willpower and grit is a valuable skill, one I would classify as an “executive function” – those functions of our brain that control other brain functions, allow us to curb our impulses, remain on task, follow through to completion, solve problems, and shift our responses to changing expectations. I’m not sure that simply exerting willpower causes physical and psychological stress—I question whether it is the fact that our culture has become so focused on the here and now, immediate gratification, and sound bites that delayed gratification and the effort that goes into willpower is now so foreign to us as to be anxiety-producing. After all, it is that inability to delay gratification that can cause issues such as the burst of economic bubbles (because of everyone impulsively living on credit rather than saving for the future), as well as the failure I see, not infrequently in my office, when kids come back from college to spend a semester or two at home because they were unable to manage their time and put in the work required to hand in homework and prepare for class rather than go to a party, and generally struggle with the executive functions needed to complete their schoolwork.
While I think that these executive functions are important skills to have, I do agree with the author that emotions can also cause us to act in certain ways, and feel either good or bad about those actions. When we take pride in ourselves are we more likely to do healthy things for ourselves? Most likely, yes. I am one of those regular exercisers who wonder who will still be there with me in February, and yes, some motivation for exercise is vanity (after all, thy name is woman), and continuing to fit into the same clothes. But it’s also a sense of pride in good health, an understanding that being fit and healthy in my 20s led to being fit and healthy in my 30s, and has allowed me to be fit and healthy in middle age and hopefully beyond. If I thought only of the here and now and didn’t care what size jeans I wore, believe me I’d be backing the Mallomar truck up to my door, but the willpower to put the cookie box aside does take the skills of executive function mentioned above – if I eat too many cookies, I may develop health problems which may impede my physical well-being, which may impede my functioning, which may require medical and other care as I get older, which may be costly and inconvenient, and my later life may be more uncomfortable and less independent and so on. So in this case, a sense of pride over both appearance and enviably good health does, indeed, combine with willpower and self-control.
Another emotion the author discusses is compassion. He found that, along with pride, compassion can increase perseverance on difficult tasks by over 30 percent, and is tied to better academic performance and a greater willingness to engage in healthy habits. When one feels compassion for others, when one has empathy and can put themselves in another’s place, it makes sense that we are more likely to do for others, whether that be to volunteer in a soup kitchen, run a fundraising race for a charity, or mentor a younger colleague. Empathy, sadly, is sorely lacking in our day and age, and not just in youngsters who are understandably developmentally self-centered. When I use the common example of shopping carts in stores, people laugh in recognition: how aware am I of there being others around me with their own needs when I leave my shopping cart in the middle of an aisle or otherwise in the way, pull my car over in a place that makes it extremely difficult for others to get around me, or talk loudly on my cell phone in a public place? And if I have little or no actual awareness of the world around me, how can I possibly be expected to know anything of my fellow human’s needs, wants, or emotions? So from this lack of awareness grows a natural lack of empathy, even the presence of apathy, and if this is the case, then there is no incentive to invest in social mores such as helping others, volunteering, or otherwise investing oneself for the greater good or for the future.
In addition, the changes in our communication has caused a breakdown of intimate relationships. Studies have shown that more and more people claim they have no friends on whom they can rely if they had to discuss important issues. Studies have also shown that when people get together face to face they talk about less important matters and have more superficial conversations if their cell phones are visible on the table or in the area. Presumably the expectation that our conversations might be interrupted by a phone alert keeps us from getting involved in conversations that are best had uninterrupted. Most of us communicate now by text, as well as comments, “Likes,” and other quick responses on social media. This breakdown of face to face, or even phone conversation, with real-time give and take can lead to feelings of social isolation, depression, and anxiety. And with feelings like those, how can we possibly be expected to make resolutions and do the hard work to keep them? Certainly at times in my life when I have felt lonely, sad, or anxious, I have not been motivated to work hard for some later gain. Indeed, these are the very emotions that can lead us to the case of Mallomars, the bottle of alcohol, or worse.
Bottom line is, I don’t think there is a magic formula for keeping those resolutions we feel compelled to make every year. However, if we can tap into both the cognitive processes needed to put in the work and look towards tomorrow, as well as the emotions required to live in a more comfortable and mutually supportive society, we can find the motivation to do the work. In addition, related to our need for instant gratification, we tend to give up on good habits when we don’t see immediate success. Lifestyle changes are just that, they are not 30-day fixes. When I have a patient eager to start some new healthy habit, I will often say, “You won’t realize how lousy you feel until you start to feel better.” It’s not about the number on the scale, so to speak, it’s about feeling healthy, which doesn’t happen overnight, and can’t always be measured easily.
See you at the gym!
Barbara Kapetanakes, Psy.D. practices psychotherapy in Sleepy Hollow.