I am writing this on first day of January and if you are anything like me, you have made at least one New Year's resolution. Research confirms that most people do not keep those resolutions though -- indeed by January 8, 25% of resolutions are broken and by the end of the year, fewer than 10% are still intact. 

What if there was a way to increase that number? All you need to do is to be more successful at denying your short-term wants. A case in point is psychologist Walter Mischel's "marshmallow experiments, in which children who could resist the temptation to immediately eat one sweet would be rewarded with a second sweet about 15 minutes later. Professor Mischel found that those who could wait -- those who had self-control -- were also the ones who had better academic and professional success years later," according to Northwestern University  psychology professor David DeSteno

The problem is that this idea that has been around for 30 years but people still can't keep their resolutions. That's because -- to put it in terms articulated by Nobel Prize winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman -- willpower is too hard. It's a method of self-control that draws on System 2 (the analytical mind) -- which demands intensive concentration, rather than System 1 (emotions and instinct) -- which leads to snap decisions that make people feel good.

DeSteno thinks he has cracked the case by tapping into System 1, not 2. He argues that the only way to achieve self-control is to cultivate social emotions such as "gratitude and compassion -- that support the positive aspects of social life."

DeSteno's research finds that these emotions naturally incline people to be patient and persevere because they turn self-control from a battle to "squash desires for pleasure in the moment" to "increasing how much we value the future."

DeSteno argues that willpower hurts -- citing a study by Northwestern University psychologist Greg Miller of 300 teenagers from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Miller found that "those who were better at using self-control did had more success when it came to resisting temptations, but at a cost to their health. Their bodies suffered not only from increased stress responses, but also from premature aging of their immune cells."

DeSteno hypothesized that strong social bonds would encourage people to cooperate and support each another, which made the recipients of their help more likely to return the favors when needed. But that such bonds would only exist if people were "fair, honest, generous, diligent and loyal" and would only arise if people put "something else ahead of their own immediate desires and interests -- to exercise self-control."

Three emotions -- "gratitude, compassion and an authentic sense of pride (not hubris)" -- lead to this self-control, DeSteno found.

How Gratitude Boosts Self-Control

DeSteno's research plotted the link between gratitude and self-control.

His lab asked adults to recall an event that made them feel grateful, neutral or happy. Next, he had them answer a series of questions of the form "Would you rather have $X now or $Y in Z days?" with Y always being bigger than X, and Z varying over weeks to months, he explained.

From these questions, he could calculate how much people "discounted the value of the future.Those feeling neutral or happy were pretty impatient. They were willing to forgo receiving $100 in a year if we gave them $18 today. Those who were feeling gratitude, however, showed nearly double the self-control. They required at least $30 to forgo the later reward," wrote DeSteno.

How Pride and Compassion Raise Self-Control

Making people feel proud of their skills boosts their inclination to wait for future rewards, lead groups, "and work longer and harder to help a team solve a difficult problem," notes DeSteno. What's more, he says, if people feel compassion, they will more willingly "take on the burdens of others, spending more time and effort to help get others out of jams and ease their distress."

The benefits of these emotions are supported by research. Feeling pride or compassion boosts perseverance on difficult tasks by over 30%; gratitude and compassion have been "tied to better academic performance, a greater willingness to exercise and eat healthily, and lower levels of consumerism, impulsivity and tobacco and alcohol use," he notes.

And these emotions heal by "slowing heart rate, lowering blood pressure and reducing feelings of anxiety and depression. By making us value the future more, they ease the way to patience and perseverance."

How You Can Harness Gratitude, Pride, and Compassion 

DeSteno says people should "cultivate these emotions. Reflect on what you're grateful to have been given. Allow your mind to step into the shoes of those in need and feel for them. Take pride in the small achievements on the path to your goals."

This may be hard to do for some. I often feel gratitude and do take pride in small achievements -- as a I did with Startup Cities, the book I finished last November. But I need help with compassion. 

Published on: Jan 2, 2018