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Willpower Is A Muscle. Happiness Is A Skill. Empathy Is A Choice.

I think I'll be empathetic today.

I think I’ll be empathetic today.

As I learn more about how we think, I’m surprised at how often I need to reframe my basic conceptions of how the brain works. I’m also struck by how many choices we can make if, and only if, we’re aware that we can make them. Here are three examples.



Willpower is a muscle

I’ve always imagined that willpower was innate and immutable. Some people have more; some have less. I admire people who overcome great challenges through sheer force of will. I also think that they have more willpower than I do and I probably couldn’t achieve the same results.

But maybe I could. The new paradigm suggests that willpower is much more like a muscle. It can be trained. It can also get tired.

The American Psychological Association defines willpower as “…the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.” It also suggests that “…willpower can in fact be strengthened with practice.”

How do you build your willpower muscle? It involves both the mind and body. Sleeping well and eating right help. Meditation and exercise also play a role. Then it’s practice. Practice not eating that donut. Practice not checking your e-mail quite so often.

But beware of decision fatigue. Like a muscle, your willpower reserve can get depleted. If you check your desire to smoke all day long, you’ll find it harder to resist a big dessert after dinner. It’s a good reason to make big decisions in the morning.

Happiness is a skill

I didn’t realize it but I’ve long subscribed to the set-point theory of happiness. The theory suggests that happiness, “…is determined primarily by heredity and by personality traits … and remains relatively constant throughout our lives.”

In the set-point theory, happiness is a result not a cause. It results from who we are and what happens to us. We simply respond to our circumstances.

But the neuroscientist Richard Davidson suggests that happiness is a skill that we can practice and improve. He notes that, “Everything we’ve learned about the brain suggests that it’s no different than learning to play the violin or learning to engage in a complex sport. If you practice at it, you’ll get better at it.”

How do you practice it? I find that the simple act of smiling can make me happier. Beyond that sleep, nutrition, exercise, and meditation can help. (Sound familiar?) Then there is the art of giving. Focusing on your happiness won’t make you happy. Focusing on someone else’s happiness is much more likely to do the trick.

Debby Hampton also recommends the STAGE framework. The five elements are Savor, Thank, Aspire, Give, and Empathize. Give it a try – it may also help you build willpower.

Empathy is a choice

David Foster Wallace probably said it best in his famous This Is Water speech at Kenyon College. (Short video here; full video here). In essence, he says that we can choose to be angry with people or we can choose to see the world as they see it and empathize. It’s a choice that brings to mind Ian Maclaren’s quote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

While Wallace said it most lyrically, there’s also solid scientific evidence behind the thought. For instance, Jamil Zaki writes in Scientific American that empathy, “…is not how good a person is at empathizing, but how motivated they are to engage with others in the first place.”

Similarly, Daryl Cameron et. al. cite recent studies that “…suggest that empathy is a limited resource, like a fossil fuel, which we cannot extend indefinitely or to everyone.” Sound familiar?

Cameron and his colleagues dispute the notion that a lack of empathy is “…is inherent, a permanent flaw in the emotion itself.” Rather, they write, “…we believe that empathy is a choice that we make whether to extend ourselves to others.” After reviewing the literature, they conclude that “In our view, empathy is only as limited as we choose it to be.”

Choices and Burdens

The idea that willpower, happiness, and empathy are choices is both empowering and burdensome. I’m happy to know that I have the power to change my thinking and attitude. I also realize that this makes me responsible for my own psychological well being. I can’t just blame it on circumstance. How can we deal with that burden? More on that in future articles.

Hate, Happiness, Imagination

Failure of imagination.

Failure of imagination.

In The Power and The Glory, Graham Greene tells the story of a “whisky priest” who tries to keep his ministry alive during the Cristero War in Mexico. After the revolution of 1917, the Mexican government, seeking to suppress the power of the Catholic Church, seized church property, desecrated churches, and forced priests to renounce their vows and even to marry.

In 1926, some 50,000 peasants – many from the state of Tabasco – revolted against the government. They became known as Cristeros because their rallying cry was Viva Cristo Rey! During the war, which lasted until 1929, no Catholic mass was given in Mexico and many priests and nuns were summarily executed.

Against this backdrop, Greene tells a morally ambiguous tale. The whisky priest is no paragon of virtue. The lieutenant who doggedly pursues him is idealistic but violent. The lieutenant hates the church, believing it to be thoroughly corrupt. Does the priest hate the lieutenant? It’s an interesting question that allows Greene to write a brief meditation on the nature of hatred:

When you visualized a man or a woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity . . . that was a quality God’s image carried with it . . . when you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.

In 2005, David Foster Wallace picked up the same thread in his commencement speech at Kenyon College. Wallace spoke of banal platitudes and the dreary rhythms of daily life. Life, he suggested, is often frustrating, infuriating, irritating, and just plain stupid. We’re surrounded by stupid, cowlike people and deal with petty, frustrating crap, day in and day out.

After painting a dismal picture of daily adult life, Wallace reminds us that that’s not the point. The point is that we get to choose. We can choose how to think and what to pay attention to. Our natural default setting is egotism. It’s all about me. Why are these people in my way?

Or we can imagine. We might imagine that the checkout clerk has a more tedious and painful life than even we do. Or that she’s just done something wonderfully generous and kind for another person. We can imagine that the person driving slowly ahead of us is tired from caring for a sick child. If we can see “the lines at the corners of the eyes”, then we can’t hate. It’s our choice.

I doubt that Greene and Wallace are compared very often in literature classes. But they’re mining exactly the same vein. We need to learn how to think and how to imagine. We don’t have to imagine new products or great art. We simply have to imagine how it is to be another person.

Another great novelist, Saul Bellow, wrote that imagination is “eternal naïveté”. We need to be naïve to imagine what another’s life is like. If we can be eternally naïve, we can stop being angry — at other people and at ourselves. Perhaps we can even be happy. It’s our choice.

(You can find a video of a portion of David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech by clicking here).

Do Smartphones Make Us Smarter, Dumber, Or Happier?

So which is it?


  1. Make you lazy and dumb.
  2. Make the world more intelligent by adding massive amounts of new processing power.
  3. Both of the above.
  4. None of the above.

Smartphones have an incredible impact on how we live and communicate. They also illustrate a popular technology maxim: If it can be done, it will be done. In other words, they’re not going away. They’ll grow smaller and stronger and will burrow into our lives in surprising ways. The basic question: are they making humans better or worse?

Smarter or dumber?

Smarter or dumber?

Researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada recently published a paper suggesting that smartphones “supplant thinking”. The researchers suggest that humans are cognitive misers — we conserve our cognitive resources whenever possible. We let other people – or devices – do our thinking for us. We make maximum use of our extended mind. Why use up your brainpower when your extended mind – beyond your brain – can do it for you? (The original Waterloo paper is here. Less technical summaries are here and here).

Though the researchers don’t use Daniel Kahneman’s terminology, there is an interesting correlation to System 1 and System 2. They write that, “…those who think more intuitively and less analytically [i.e. System 1] when given reasoning problems were more likely to rely on their Smartphones (i.e., extended mind) ….” In other words, System 1 thinkers are more likely to offload.

So, we use our phones to offload some of our processing. Is that so bad? We’ve always offloaded work to machines. Thinking is a form of work. Why not offload it and (potentially) reduce our cognitive load and increase our cognitive reserve? We could produce more interesting thoughts if we weren’t tied down with the scut work, couldn’t we?

Clay Shirky was writing in a different context but that’s the essence of his concept of cognitive surplus. Shirky argues that people are increasingly using their free time to produce ideas rather than simply to consume ideas. We’re watching TV less and simultaneously producing more content on the web. Indeed, this website is an example of Shirky’s concept. I produce the website in my spare time. I have more spare time because I’ve offloaded some of my thinking to my extended mind. (Shirky’s book is here).

Shirky assumes that creating is better than consuming. That’s certainly a culturally nuanced assumption, but it’s one that I happen to agree with. If it’s true, we should work to increase the intelligence of the devices that surround us. We can offload more menial tasks and think more creatively and collaboratively. That will help us invent more intelligent devices and expand our extended mind. It’s a virtuous circle.

But will we really think more effectively by offloading work to our extended mind? Or, will we forevermore watch reruns of The Simpsons?

I’m not sure which way we’ll go, but here’s how I’m using my smartphone to improve my life. Like many people, I consult my phone almost compulsively. I’ve taught myself to smile for at least ten seconds each time I do. My phone reminds me to smile. I’m not sure if that’s leading me to higher thinking or not. But it certainly brightens my mood.

Happiness and High Dudgeon

I'm always happy!

I’m always happy!

Some years ago, I discovered that I could improve my mood (and maybe my performance) simply by forcing myself to smile. I knew that being happy made me smile. I wondered if smiling could make me happy. Happily, it could.

As we’ve discussed before (here and here), the body and the brain are one system. The brain affects the body and the body returns the favor. Your posture affects your thoughts and your mood. According to Amy Cuddy, it can even help you get a job.

In fact, you don’t even have to smile. Just hold a pencil in your mouth sideways. Your smile muscles will flex and your mood will lift. Even though you know you’re tricking yourself, it actually works. Indeed, it’s foolproof.

When I discovered all this, I thought, “Great. I can always be happy. I’ll never be cranky or curmudgeonly again. I’ll always be in a good mood.”

But something funny happened on the way to happiness nirvana. I discovered that, on many occasions, I simply didn’t want to smile. I found that I actually enjoyed being cranky, snarky, and even a tad self-righteous.

This was a revelation. I’m a reasonably positive person and I always assumed that – if I had the choice – I would opt for happiness rather than its opposite. But I do have a choice and I find that I don’t always exercise it.

The dilemma seems to be the difference between being right and being happy. When I know I’m right – and somebody else is wrong – I can work myself into high dudgeon (as my mother called it). It’s a sense of self-righteous anger. I know I’m right and I want to prove the other side wrong. I’m indignant. I want to expose them for what they are – craven fools. My self-righteousness fuels the fire. I have no time to be happy. I’m on a mission.

I also enjoy winning, whether it’s an argument or a race or a poker hand. In a roundabout way, then, high dudgeon can lead to happiness. My indignation provides the energy and determination that can power me to victory. And victory makes me happy.

Getting angry to get happy, however, is a very odd dynamic. You’re going the wrong way. And winning one victory can simply lead to another battle. If there’s a victor, there’s also a vanquished. And he wants to get even.

I promised to write about happiness. First, I want to explore this conundrum of happiness and high dudgeon. Think about it. Do you actually want to be happy? Or, put another way, if you had to choose, would you rather be happy or right?

What Makes You Happy?

Are you happy? Would that be “affective happiness” or “evaluative happiness”?

Affective happiness has to do with day-to-day life and emotions. It can go up or down quickly depending on how your day is going. Evaluative happiness is your overall evaluation of your life. How happy are you with your place in society? Think of it as overall life satisfaction.

So what makes people happy? I’m glad you asked since I’ve been reading the World Happiness Report. (For my earlier article on Gross National Happiness, click here. For the full Report, click here.) The Report summarizes surveys and statistics from around the world and develops some surprising conclusions about what contributes to evaluative happiness. Here’s a look at a few of the variables.

Income — you might think that richer people are happier. To a degree, you’re right — but income works in strange ways. First, richer people are generally happier than poorer people but the quest for higher income can reduce happiness. Second, as countries grow richer, they don’t necessarily grow happier. GNP per capita has risen threefold in the U.S since 1960, yet we’re not happier. That’s partially because happiness is tied more to relative income rather than absolute income. If we all get richer at more or less the same rate, then our relative positions don’t change — nor does our happiness. Third, there seems to be an income limit. Up to a certain level, income seems to increase happiness. Beyond that level, more income does not yield more happiness. Ultimately, differences in income explain about 1% of the variance in evaluative happiness.

Marriage – “Marriage is one of the unambiguous, universally positive and statistically significant correlates of life satisfaction.” But what’s the cause and what’s the effect? Does marriage make people happy or do happy people get married? It seems to be a bit of both. People who are happier when they’re young are more likely to get married. But marriage then gives a happiness boost — over and above the “normal” rate of happiness.

Age — as you get older, your body starts to break down physically and mentally. So you should be less happy, right? Not quite. There’s a big U-turn when you relate age to happiness. Other things being equal, we’re happier when we’re young and then happiness declines until we reach our 40s. Then things brighten up again and our life satisfaction rises. Could it be the wisdom of maturity? Maybe. Or maybe we can just afford better wine.

Gender — “In most advanced countries women report higher satisfaction and happiness than men.” This is less true in poorer countries but seems to be universally true in richer, more advanced countries.

Education — the evidence is mixed. More education doesn’t correlate directly with greater happiness. But it does contribute indirectly in that more education generally results in higher income which can create greater happiness.

Children — “Surprisingly, the presence of children in the household appears not to be associated with higher life satisfaction.”

Television — “Many studies have shown that watching TV is associated with lower happiness, other things equal. An early study exploited the fact that one Canadian town gained access to TV some years later than other towns. The result was a relative fall in social life and increased aggression.” Additionally, TV watchers see many rich people on the tube and tend to underestimate their own relative income. As we saw earlier, your perception of your income relative to others is what counts in happiness.

There’s much more to it — including mental health, freedom, corruption, equality, and community — but I think I’ll stop here for the moment. Does that make you happy?

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