What underlies success in life? What allows a person to excel professionally or academically, to ensure financial security, to eat right and be healthy? What’s the key? As it turns out, there’s a magic bullet of sorts. Decades of research have confirmed that the ability to delay gratification through self-control — to value the future more than the present — is what matters. Given this fact, it’s no surprise that in a society as obsessed with success as ours, the shelves of your local bookstore are filled with bestsellers promising to distill the best advice science has to offer on how to increase self-control and grit (which itself requires the ability to exert self-control over long periods of time).
Irrespective of which book or scientific article you peruse, what you’ll find is a message that boils down to this: emotions are the bane of self-control. Those pesky “hot” emotional responses that crave immediate satisfaction (i.e., to have fun rather than study, to throw in the towel rather than persevere at something difficult, to spend your entire paycheck rather than save a percentage for retirement) must be tamped down or ignored by “cold” cognitive processes like reason and willpower. In other words, if you’re to succeed in ensuring a better future, you have to override your emotions via rational calculations, executive function, and force of will. But here’s the problem: If this view is correct and we’ve been using the science that supports it for years to enhance our self-control, why are we still so bad at achieving our goals? After all, research has shown that people fail about 20% of the time they try to resist daily temptations, and when it comes to goals that really matter, they’re even worse. Only 8% of New Year’s resolutions are kept throughout the year; 25% fail in the first week.
I think the reason most of us are doing so poorly when it comes to self-control is that we’re using weak and potentially harmful strategies. When we, as a society, faced a fork in the road to choose how we’d go about fostering self-control — a decision between using logic and willpower versus emotion — we chose the wrong path., and as a result, we’re fighting the human mind’s inherent glitch to devalue the future with one hand tied behind our back.
The reason I say this is that using reason and willpower to convince ourselves to persevere and resist temptation is a losing battle. Willpower is taxing to maintain, meaning that when temptations quickly pile up, they become more and more difficult to resist. What’s more, following these cognitive, nose-to-the-grindstone strategies can also inhibit our wellbeing. As people work to repress their emotional sides, increases in loneliness can result. Take the concept of grit, for example. While it’s true that those who are gritty fail less often, when they do fail, it hits them much harder than the rest of us. Why? Most likely because they haven’t taken the time to build up strong social relationships that can buttress people when they hit bumps in the road. For example, there’s a famous statistic out there that shows grit predicts performance in the National Spelling Bee. But if you look at the final rounds, once kids’ verbal IQ’s were taken into account, grit didn’t add anything to the picture. The only thing it did predict was more time spent studying and drilling, likely in isolation.
What’s the answer? If we realize that self-control didn’t evolve to help us save money, perform at work or in school, or go to the gym — none of those mattered or even existed for most of our evolutionary history — but rather came about to help us be moral — to repay favors and debts, to be honest, to be generous and kind — so that we could form social bonds that would help us survive and thrive, the answer is clear. We need to focus on the moral emotions that undergird social living and link us to one another: gratitude, compassion, and an honest, authentic pride in our abilities.
To demonstrate the point, my research team has shown that inducing people to feel gratitude causes them to value the future. For example, grateful people are more patient, make better financial decisions when it comes to long-term investing, and are more willing to offer help to others even at a cost to themselves. People feeling proud, but not arrogant, are willing to persevere in the face of difficulties to hone skills that will serve them well in the future. People feeling compassion are willing to accept costs to their own immediate enjoyment to benefit others. Each of these behaviors requires self-control — a willingness to sacrifice some reward in the moment to help ensure not only a better future for yourself, but also for those around you (which indirectly also benefits you).
Perhaps best of all, though, using these emotions to foster self-control also combats the modern plague of loneliness. Cultivating these emotions won’t only increase the value you place on the future, and thus your willingness to persevere toward long-term goals, but will simultaneously help you forge and maintain bonds with others. Just as feeling grateful or compassionate makes you more able to resist temptations to slack or spend, it will make you willing to help others in ways that ensures they’ll be there to return the favor when needed. Just as feeling a sense of pride will enhance your perseverance, it will draw others to you. Using these emotions to strengthen self-control will help you simultaneously maximize your resume and eulogy virtues — the ones that matter professionally and the ones for which you hope your friends and family will most remember you — in a way that helps secure a balanced, lasting, and resilient success.
To find out more, check out David DeSteno’s recent talk at PopTech:
David DeSteno is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and author of the forthcoming book Emotional Success (Eamon Dolan Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Follow him on twitter @daviddesteno
Originally published at medium.com