David DeSteno | Emotional Success (Episode 685)

David DeSteno (@daviddesteno) is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and author of Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride.

The Cheat Sheet:

  • Why is delaying gratification so hard and why is it important?
  • Why willpower runs counter to our evolutionary programming and often fails.
  • Why developing prosocial emotions — gratitude, compassion, and pride — is a superior strategy for self control.
  • Why reason is biased and allows us to rationalize giving into temptation.
  • What are the health risks of trying to achieve goals by the force of sheer willpower?
  • And so much more…

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In the new year, a lot of us resolve to make positive changes. And then, as the weeks and months proceed, we find ourselves abandoning these resolutions — perhaps to make them again in the next new year, repeating the cycle ad infinitum.

David DeSteno — Northeastern University psychology professor and author of Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride — says this happens because most of us rely on willpower to see us through to our goals rather than the prosocial emotions that evolved along with us to promote positive social behavior. Listen, learn, and enjoy!

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We act because we feel.

Because they’re not based in executive function, our prosocial emotions — gratitude, compassion, and pride — are immune to rationalization and bias. They can’t be tweaked to fit the desires of the moment. Whenever we feel gratitude, compassion, or pride, it will only push our values one way: toward the future. As a result, they can be trusted. Unlike reasoning, these emotions won’t work to subvert long-term goals by lulling us into a sense of complacency or expediency that we’ll come to regret later.

And this is why David DeSteno — Northeastern University psychology professor and author of Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride — says prosocial emotions are better than willpower when we’re trying to cultivate grit, resilience, and self control. Rather than trying to motivate ourselves by deprivation of things we like for the idea of a distant reward somewhere down the way, we’re building the mechanisms of self control by harnessing our emotions — a far more efficient fuel for progress.

Discounting the Value of the Future

“It’s all about thinking, ‘What is going to benefit future me?’ And that requires present me to sacrifice in the moment,” says David. “And if we have this idea that, ‘Oh, I don’t want to see future me. that guy’s screwed!’ we’re in trouble.

“As a society, I think we’re doing that time and time again. We’re building debt, we’re not investing in infrastructure, we’re just too focused on the moment, and that’s going to cause problems down the line.”

David says the human tendency to discount the value of the future made sense to our ancestors, for whom the future was uncertain on a very basic level. It made sense to eat the food they could get today because it might be a long time before there would be more.

But today’s a lot more certain. We know investing in an IRA now will help us in our retirement years. We know that indulging in bad behaviors like smoking or overeating now will have negative consequences to our health in the future. Yet the need for immediate gratification prevails.

Relying on willpower takes a lot of effort. And the more you do it, the less you want to do it.

So how do we solve the problem of investing in our future selves? The first step is really in seeing our future selves as real and having compassion for them. David says this plays upon our prosocial emotions to cooperate with others — but in this case, we’re cooperating with our future selves.

“It’s the bottom-up route to grit,” says David.

Reasoning Hypocrisy

Given the chance, we can explain away the bad choices we make by reasoning that we were responding to exceptional conditions while simultaneously condemning others for making equally bad choices under identical circumstances.

“If you actually believe that you, yourself are a cheater or don’t have any self control or can’t stick to your goals, then you’re never going to try to do anything for future you,” David says. “Why should you not eat the donut today? Future you tomorrow’s going to eat it — why should you save money if future you’s going to blow it?

“So we create these rationalizations for ourselves to believe that we are trustworthy, honest, good people — even when we kind of break our own moral codes.

Prosocial Emotions Are Contagious

“If we’re around people who feel sad, sometimes we tend to absorb that and feel it ourselves — the same with happiness,” says David. “So if I’m around people who are cultivating, expressing gratitude, compassion, and pride in their work, I’m likely to catch that through contagion and feel it myself.

“And to the extent that I feel it, it reinforces success and cooperation in everyone in the group. But there’s another way that they’re contagious, too. If I’m feeling compassion and empathy and I see…you’re having a bad day or having trouble at work, that will motivate me to help you. And my compassion that motivates me to help you leads you to suddenly feel grateful to me. So not only are you catching the emotion people are feeling, but through reciprocal interactions of these emotions, they tend to evoke each other.”

Think of it this way: if your boss expresses gratitude for what you do, you’re more likely to work longer and harder on difficult tasks.

On Compassion

During daily practice of meditation, Buddhist monks found that compassion released in the process is key to self control.

“When monks first take their vows to be ethical — to stop gambling, to stop drinking…they fail a lot, like the rest of us, because they’re relying on willpower and they can try and talk themselves into why it’s okay or why a mistake wasn’t so bad and they’ll try and hide it from their superiors,” says David.

“But once meditation begins to unleash compassion, suddenly the difficulty falls away. Because that compassion just changes what you value, and that maps onto what we’re doing in our lab. When people feel compassion, they’re more willing to accept sacrifices and help other people including their own future selves.”

Practicing mindfulness meditation just 10 minutes a day increases compassion — which in turn increases willingness to sacrifice in order to help others and your own future self. There are countless resources on the Internet for getting started with mindfulness meditation. If you’re looking for an app to assist, the most reputable we know of include Headspace, Oak, and 10% Happier.

On Pride

Episode 596 guest Jessica Tracy identified two different kinds of pride: hubristic pride (when someone arrogantly believes they’re the best at something, regardless of evidence that may suggest otherwise), and authentic pride (pride for skills one actually possesses).

But how does authentic pride fit into evolution? Having unique skills that benefited the entire community gave people a place in that community. “It marks you as someone with whom others want to cooperate,” David says. “And when you feel pride, it makes you more willing to work harder to persevere to have self control to develop those skills.”

Research has shown that when pride for one’s skills is reinforced by others, we work 40 percent longer to improve those skills.

Final Thoughts on Willpower vs. Prosocial Emotions

“Imagine a candle burning with a flame, and that flame is your grit, so to speak, to keep going,” says David. “What willpower’s trying to do is it’s trying to put a shield around it to keep from blowing out in the wind. What these prosocial emotions do are really adding fuel to the flame from the bottom. They’re not a struggle; they’re a way to ease the path. And I think, because of that, they’re easier to use and more beneficial in the long run.”

THANKS, DAVID DESTENO!

If you enjoyed this session with David DeSteno, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out at Twitter:

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Jordan Harbinger - author of 948 posts on The Art of Charm

Jordan Harbinger has spent several years abroad in Europe and the developing world, including South America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, and speaks several languages. He has also worked for various governments and NGOs overseas, traveled through war zones, and been kidnapped -- twice. He’ll tell you the only reason he’s still alive and kicking is because of his ability to talk his way into (and out of) just about any type of situation. Here at The Art of Charm, Jordan shares that experience, and the system borne as a result, with students and clients.

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