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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.

Improving Self-Control

Control yourself.

Use your left hand.

Yesterday I wrote about self-esteem and self-control. In the last thirty years of the 20th century, we thought that self-esteem might be the key to success. Now we think of self-esteem as the result of success rather than the cause of it. What counts is self-control or, as some writers phrase it, the building of character.

So how do we improve self-control? The short answer is that we need to practice it just as we practice any other skill. Here are eight suggestions from the research literature.

Use your non-dominant hand more frequently – researchers asked people to use their non-dominant hand for routine activities, like drinking coffee, for two weeks. Because these tasks restrained “natural inclinations” they required constant self-control. At the end of two weeks, the participants had better self-control and also “controlled their aggression better than others” who had not participated. You may well get similar results by improving your posture or policing your language.

Think about God – Kevin Rounding and his colleagues conducted experiments in which participants completed a variety of self-control exercises. Prior to the exercises, half the group played word puzzles that contained religious or divine themes. The other half played similar word puzzles with non-religious themes. Those who were exposed to religious themes had better self-control.

Laughter – laughter apparently interrupts your thought processes in useful ways. Rather than focusing on self-regulation, you can gain a brief reprieve. You let your “willpower muscle” relax and replenish.

Don’t use social media – consumer researchers, Keith Wilcox and Andrew Stephen, studied the effects of browsing social media on post-browsing behavior. They found that browsing social media increases self-esteem, which has negative behavioral effects. “This momentary increase in self-esteem reduces self-control, leading those [who browse] to display less self-control after browsing a social network compared to not browsing a social network.”

Focus on long-term goals – researchers Nidhi Agrawal and Echo Wen Wan found that health-related communications have more impact on ego-depleted people when the message focuses on long-term goals. “[W]hen [the participants] looked to the future and linked the health task to important long-term goals, they exerted self- control and were not affected by being tired or depleted. “

Clench your muscles – perhaps your physical muscles and your willpower muscles are related. Consumer researchers Iris Hung and Laparna Labroo found that embodied cognition plays a role in self-control. Participants who clenched a muscle – a fist, the calves, whatever – showed better self-control than those who didn’t.

Don’t banish the treat – researchers at Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium found that the presence of an actual treat – like M&Ms – improved participants’ self-control. The treats are actionable – you can grab a handful and eat them or decide not to. Deciding not to is an action that improves self-control in ways that avoidance doesn’t. Actionability proved to be a “pivotal variable” in self-control strategies.

Say “I don’t” rather than “I can’t” – perhaps the importance of actionability comes from emphasis on choice. A study by Vanessa Patrick, a marketing professor at the University of Houston, examined the wording of self-talk on self-control. “When participants framed a refusal as ‘I don’t’ (for instance, ‘I don’t eat sugar’) instead of ‘I can’t,’ they were more successful at resisting the desire to eat unhealthy foods or skip the gym.” Patrick comments, ““Saying ‘I can’t’ connotes deprivation, while saying ‘I don’t’ makes us feel empowered and better able to resist temptation.”

There’s plenty more research on self-control that I expect to write about in the near future. Interestingly, some of the best articles come from consumer researchers and marketers. They apparently want to understand how our self-control works so they can manipulate it. Stay tuned.

Self-Esteem or Self-Control?

Building willpower.

Building willpower.

Here’s a simple cause-and-effect question. Does an increase in self-esteem lead to greater success in life? Or is it the other way round: an increase in success leads to greater self-esteem? It’s one of those tricky questions that can guide – or misguide – our public policy.

Nathaniel Branden did more than anyone else to popularize the idea that improving one’s self-esteem can lead to greater success. Pump up the self-esteem and everything else works better. Branden launched the idea when he published his book, The Psychology of Self-Esteem in 1969. (Branden had been Ayn Rand’s acolyte and lover; he broke with Rand in 1968 and published his new thinking a year later).

Branden’s work seemed to explain a lot and the self-esteem movement grew quickly. Educators – especially at the primary and secondary levels – adopted it enthusiastically. Unfortunately, it didn’t work.

In 2005, Roy Baumeister and his co-authors published a paper titled, “Exploding the Self-Esteem Myth”. The authors studied over 200 research papers and concluded “… self-esteem belongs on the same shelf as miracle diet pills.”

In 2009, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman published Nurture Shock – New Thinking About Children, which – among many other things – assessed 15,000 studies on self-esteem. They concluded that, “… high self-esteem doesn’t improve grades, reduce ­anti-social behavior, deter alcohol drinking or do much of anything good for kids. In fact, telling kids how smart they are can be counterproductive.”

Self-esteem seems to be yet another thing that we’ve gotten backwards. We’ve confused cause with effect.

So, what’s replacing self-esteem? The emerging consensus focuses on self-control. And one of the authors leading the way is Roy Baumeister. In a recent article in Scientific American, Baumeister writes that, “People with good control over their thought processes, emotions and behaviors not only flourish in school and in their jobs but are also healthier, wealthier and more popular.”

Similarly, David Brooks recently wrote about “The Moral Bucket List” in the New York Times. He notes that there are resumé virtues and eulogy virtues. We all know that eulogy virtues are more important than resumé virtues, but we spend our time developing the latter rather than the former.

Baumeister refers to self-control and willpower. Brooks uses a more traditional moral language and focuses on character. But the concepts overlap extensively. So, how does one build self-control, willpower, and character?

To begin with, Baumeister argues, we need to recognize that willpower is analogous, in many ways, to muscle power. Just as a muscle tires after exertion, so willpower can tire after we exercise it. Baumeister calls it ego depletion – if you use your willpower to resist Temptation X, you’ll have less left over to resist Temptation Y.

We’ve all experienced muscle fatigue from time to time and we can probably grasp the concept of willpower fatigue. But we also know that we can build our muscle strength through exercise. Does the same hold true for willpower? Apparently so.

Baumeister reports on a study that asked students to clean up their language (no cursing) and/or straighten up their posture for a period of two weeks. At the end of the period, researchers tested the students’ self-control ability. They “performed significantly better than a control group.”

Moving into Brooks’ territory, Baumeister goes on to say, “It has occurred to us from these studies that the Victorian notion of “building character” seems to have some scientific validity.”

So how does one build character and improve willpower? More on that in upcoming articles.

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