[00:00:19.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success. Introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:12.0] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success, the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than 2 million downloads, listeners in over a hundred countries and part of the Self-Help for Smart People Network.
In this episode, we discuss why the way we think about grit and willpower is fundamentally wrong. Self-control is one of the most research-validated strategies for long-term success, but the way we think about cultivating, it misses the mark. Emotions don't get in the way of self-control. They’re actually the path forward to sustainable and renewable willpower. How do we develop the emotions that underpin grit, self-control and achievement? We dig into that and much more with our guest, Dr. David DeSteno.
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In an earlier episode this month, we looked at the gap that exists between learning and doing. Why it is that so many smart, ambitious people invest hours in their growth and development, but fail to see breakaway external results for the time they've invested. If you sometimes feel overwhelmed by all the things you know you could or should be implementing to level up your life and career, then that episode is going to blow your mind. We explore what science is telling us about the actual execution of concrete individual growth and measurable upward mobility across various dimensions of life. We share the most effective tactic for moving yourself from learning to doing with our special guest, Peter Shallard.
Our interview with Peter Shallard earlier this month is what you need to finally take action on what you've been procrastinating on. That episode is one of the most unique and impactful episodes we've done on the Science of Success. Be sure to listen to that episode and check it out. It's going to have a big impact on you. It will make you into someone who takes action and creates results in their life.
Now, for our interview with David.
[0:03:30.9] MB: Today we have another fascinating guests of the show, Dr. David DeSteno. David is author and professor of psychology at Northeastern University, where he directs the social emotions group. He is a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the American Psychological Association. He’s work has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and much more.
David, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:52.7] DD: Hi, Matt, thanks for having me on.
[0:03:54.3] MB: We’re really excited to have you on the show today, and to start out I'm curious, kind of a weird opening question, but what do marshmallows have to do with success?
[0:04:05.1] DD: It's a good question. I think this study, which everybody is colloquially calls the marshmallow test, is one of the most famous studies of self-control. Probably one of the most famous studies of 20th century psychology, and the way it works, just to give your audience a sense, is the psychologist who conducted this was Walter Mischel, and he was interested in what led kids to be able to resist temptation, to have willpower.
So the way this experiment work is he would come in and he would put a marshmallow down in front of a child, and to a child a marshmallow is a pretty good reward. We’re talking like four-year-olds that like to eat them, and he’d say, “You can have this marshmallow now, but I have to go do something. If you wait till I get back and don't eat it you can have two.” Then he’d go out of the room and he’d leave that there. If you see videos of reenactments of this, it's just adorable watching the kids try to resist trying to eat this marshmallow. Some kids lick it. Some kids cover their eyes. You can feel the gears of willpower turning.
But what he found was the kids that were able to wait, to not gobble that first marshmallow, had lots of improved outcomes over time. So, for example, they had better grades in school and they had better friendships, more loyalty. Their teachers thought their academic performance was superior. So he followed these kids throughout their life and he found they had better career success. Self-control based on this test has been tied to lower deaths, lower addictive behaviors, all of these things that touch on the many different aspects of success.
So that kind of has – And there's lots of work building off that has shown us that the ability to delay gratification, to resist temptation, is an important marker for how we succeed in life. It’s very related to one of the buzzwords these days called grit, which is the ability to kind of work hard at something that's difficult to do to succeed down the line.
[0:05:51.8] MB: So does grit work or is grit overrated and kind of overhyped?
[0:05:56.2] DD: Yeah. There's no doubt that the ability to delay gratification, to value the future more than the present leads to success. It's something that economists call inter-temporal choice, which basically means I have a decision that has different consequences as time unfolds. So if you extrapolate the marshmallow test, what we’re facing as adults, my ability to put money into my retirement account rather than spend it on the newest smartphone, or my ability to go to the gym even though I really don't want to in the moment, rather sit home and watch TV, but to make myself do that for future gain. All of those things clearly underlie success.
My argument though is that how we get there, how we engage self-control, how we give ourselves the ability to persevere and value the future over the present is wrong. So I think the goal is self-control and grit are clearly important, but there's a much better way to build and cultivate those abilities than the way most people are telling us right now.
[0:06:56.6] MB: So what's wrong with the way that we currently think about or often kind of speakers right and talk about developing grit or self-control?
[0:07:05.9] DD: Yeah. Well, if you go to your local Barnes & Noble you'll see that the shelves are filled with bestsellers that in one way or another give some form of this advice, and that advice is squelch your emotions. Your emotions are getting in your way. Rely on willpower or what psychologists call executive function, and what executive function is, it’s kind of that part of the mind that we can order around to control other aspects. When you use willpower, basically your mind is saying, “Okay. Part of my mind is desiring something that would be fun in the moment, but I'm going to ignore that. I'm going to suppress that desire and make myself do something else.”
If we rely on willpower or these other related cognitive tricks, that's the way to make us persevere toward the future, and I think it comes out of the logic of when the studies were done. These studies originally were done in the late 60s, early 70s, when the current metaphor of the time was the mind is a computer, and if only we didn't have these problematic things called emotions we would succeed.
But if you think about where self-control really comes from, self-control didn't evolve so that we could save money for retirement, so that we can study for exams or complete the whole 30. The reason self-control evolved for most of our evolutionary history was to help us have good, strong relationships. For millennia, that's what mattered for success. You had to be trustworthy. You had to be honest. You had to have people want to partner with you, to work with you, and that's what led us for most of our life, most of our evolutionary history to succeed. And what are the mechanisms that make us be fair, that make us have good character? It's moral emotions. It's things like gratitude, and compassion, and pride. These are the emotions that motivate us to sacrifice our own selfish desires to help other people, and what we’re finding now on our own work is they also make us willing to sacrifice our immediate desires to help someone else who’s important to our success, and that is our own future self.
[0:09:07.6] MB: So in essence, what you're saying is that rather than sort of being a roadblock to self-control, which I think people often conceive of their emotions as being kind of a barrier, emotions could actually be the best strategy for developing self-control.
[0:09:21.4] DD: Yeah, they in fact are, I think, and I'm sure we'll get into this, a much stronger root. Now, there are certainly emotions that make us impulsive and focused on the moment. If you're feeling a lot of lust or desire, that may make you do things in the moment that aren’t good for you in the long term. If you're feeling anger, it might make you lash out in the moment. If you're feeling sad, it makes people want to do something in the moment to get a treat or award that helps them relieve that sadness.
But there are other emotions, things that are central to kind of human social exchange, right? Things like gratitude and compassion that make us do just the opposite. So you know if I borrowed $10 from you, Matt, and I don't pay you back. Right in that moment, I’m ahead. But if I don't pay you back, you're not going to want to cooperate with me or work with me anymore in the future. So what I lose are all those long term gains and the aggregate that I'd get from interacting with you.
So when I feel gratitude, it makes me pay you back, even though in the moment that's costly to me. Maybe you help me move, and this Sunday I really don't want to move your couch, but I feel really grateful for the help you’ve give me in the past and so I agreed to do it. Those sacrifices we make ensure that over the long term we’re going to have strong relationships, which allow us to have much greater gains over time.
[0:10:36.2] MB: So I want to dig in a little bit on kind of the failures of some of these cognitive strategies for self-control. Why do they often kind of backfire or why are they not as effective as emotional strategies?
[0:10:47.3] DD: Sure. So one thing we know about willpower is it tends to be pretty fragile. The longer you try to rely on it and try to use it in repeated succession the more likely it is to fail. So, I mean, think about this, 8% of New Year's resolutions are kept to till the years end. 25% are gone in the first week or first two weeks and most people are trying to rely on willpower to keep them. Why are we so bad?
So psychologists have sent people out into their normal lives following them with smartphones and beeping them at random times a day to see what temptations they're facing and what they do, and what we find is that one out about every five times people try to resist a temptation to do something that distracts them or takes them away from their long-term goals they fail, and if they're tired, or stressed, or distracted, their statistics get even worse.
I think one reason why it's problematic is we’re constantly in a state of stress. If you're having one impulse and you're always trying to shut that impulse down and overrule it be a willpower to make yourself do something else, your body is in a constant state of conflict and stress and over time it's going to cause not only your mind to give in, but it actually takes a toll on your health.
So there is a famous study done a couple of years ago by a psychologists named Greg Miller at Northwestern and he looked at kids from disadvantaged backgrounds who were trying the kind of use willpower and self-control in the normal way to succeed, and what he found his they were successful. They resisted the temptations they were confronted with, but at a cost. The constant stress they were under resulted in premature aging of their immune system responses, which if you extrapolate out means, yeah, you're kind of going to be successful, but you're not going to be around as long to enjoy it, which is not a good thing.
The third problem with kind of relying on willpower and reasoning to have us reach our goals is sometimes we can engage in a bit of rationalization. So let me give you an example. One thing in my lab we study is cheating, and we have this task where people come in and we give them a virtual coin to flip. The reason it's virtual is so we can control what it comes up as. They're told, “There're two tasks that need to be done, a short and fun one, or a really long and onerous one. Flip this coin, if you get heads, you can do the short and fun one. If you get tails, you have to do the long and onerous one,” and we then leave them, and they think there alone, but of course we’re watching on hidden video and we know what they're doing.
In that task, fully 90% of people – We’ve done this a few times. 90% of people cheat, right? They either don't flip the coin, or they flip the coin that comes up with the answer they don't like and they ignore it and they just report that they got heads, and they go on and do the task. If ask them later, “How fairly did you act?” They say, “Yeah, I did okay. I was kind of fair.” But if you have them watch somebody else cheat in exactly the same way, they'll say it's unfair and immoral and they’ll condemn them for it.
So what you're seeing here is hypocrisy, and that people, what they're doing is they're creating a rationalization. They'll say, “Well, normally I wouldn't cheat, but I just had a medical appointment today later in that day and I just wanted to be sure I wouldn't be late,” or they'll create other stories like that. Most people would say, “Well, what's going on there is just that their willpower wasn't strong enough. Their motions for desires to get done got in the way.”
But if we do the experiment again, and this time we prevent them from engaging in rationalization, and the way we do that is we give them something psychologists call a cognitive load, which basically means you have to remember a random string of digits while you're making the decision of whether what you did when you cheated was fair or unfair. Well, you find this hypocrisy goes away. People who are prevented from engaging in rationalization say what they did was wrong and is wrong as when anybody else cheated.
So what this tells us is if we give you time to rationalize, you will and you create a story. Why giving in? Why not having the self-control to do the right thing was okay? What that means in real life is we create rationalizations for why it's okay for us to not study when we should be studying, or why it's okay for us to spend the money on the new smartphone instead of putting it in retirement or why we deserve the Ben & Jerry's at 2 AM tonight instead of not having it? The upshot of that is if you can rationalize yourself out of thinking why you should persevere toward your long-term goal, then you're never going to bother invoking willpower in the first place.
For these reasons, kind of cultivating these emotional responses to increase self-control is better because they don't rely on rationalization. They don't need effort. They don't weaken over time. They just constantly push you toward valuing the future over the present.
[0:15:33.4] MB: So I think we've talked about why and kind of how self-control is so highly correlated with pretty much every positive life outcome. Let's dig a little bit now into some of these strategies. How do we develop more self-control and what are these kind of emotions that we can cultivate to have more self-control?
[0:15:54.2] DD: Sure. So the three that I focus on our gratitude, compassion, and pride, but let me give you just a sense of how this works. So, if what I'm saying is right, then when you're feeling, let's say, grateful, you should do better at the marshmallow test, right? You should show more self-control. So we wanted to actually put this idea to the test, but we wanted to do it with adults, not kids and most adults don't like marshmallows, but they do like cash. So we constructed an adult version of the marshmallow test, and the way this works is people come to the lab and we have them reflect on a time they felt grateful, reflect on a time they felt happy, or just tell us the events of their normal day, which is kind of a neutral control. Then we had them answer a series of 27 questions of the form. Would you rather have X-dollars now or Y-dollars in Z-days? Where Y was always bigger than X, and Z varied over weeks to months. So a typical question might be, “Would you rather have $35 now or $70 and in three weeks?” So basically, would you rather have one marshmallow now or two marshmallows later?
We told him to make it real. We're going to honor one of their questions. So if we pick that question, you said you wanted $35 now. We’d hand you $35. If you wanted $75 in three weeks, we’d mail you the check for $75 in three weeks. What we found is most people were pretty impatient. So we can kind of calculate how impatient they weren't. So an example is people who were feeling neutrally saw $100 in a year is worth $17 today, or another way of saying that is if I gave them $17 right now, they’d forgo getting $100 in a year. I don't know about you, but if you don't need those $17 to survive today, passing up an opportunity to quintuple your money in a year is a pretty dumb idea given what the banks are paying. But if we made people feel grateful, they wouldn't take that, right? They became much more patient.
For them, it took them over $30 before they were willing to forgo the hundred dollars, and what that translates to in marshmallows is they were much more willing to wait. They valued the future reward more than the present, or they at least discounted the value of the future reward less than most people would. If you value a future goal more than you normally would have, you're not in a state of conflict trying to make yourself aimed toward it. If you value it more, it just becomes easier to pursue it.
So we found that over time, we measure people's daily levels of gratitude. People who experience more gratitude generally in their life are more future-oriented. They have more self-control. We give them these financial tasks. They want to wait for the larger reward, and other people have done the same thing with pride and compassion.
So what this means is if you begin to cultivate these emotions regularly in your life, they’re kind of like a booster shop for self-control. So we've seen compassion is tied to less procrastination, more perseverance toward your goal, whether we’re talking about academics or athletics. We found that pride actually makes people persevere toward their goals. They’ll spend 40% more time working to hone skills that they believe are important, and it's a way of just changing what the mind values, making it value the future, which just makes it easier to persevere toward those long-term goals.
[0:19:05.0] MB: So how do you measure kind of the longer term impacts of these pro-social emotions outside of sort of an isolated lab experiment? Let's say the impact of gratitude 3, 6, 9 months down the road.
[0:19:18.4] DD: Yeah. So what we said is we would follow people in their daily lives and then give them these financial tests, but there's lots of people who actually study this in organizations. So, for example, there is great work out there by Adam Grant and Francesca Gino, which shows that – Talk about an environment where you need some level of grit. They looked at people working in call centers, basically calling people all the time were hanging up on you and your job is to persevere through this.
What they found is that if the manager of a group expresses gratitude for people's efforts or expresses – They anticipate that they'll feel proud of their efforts because the manager will appreciate them, gratitude and pride, actually significantly predict people's efforts. They’re work longer and they're more successful and they’re less stressed and they're happier at pursuing whatever their job task is. We see the same thing at Google, right? The teams that are actually the most successful, the biggest predictor isn't the technical prowess of the team. The biggest predictor of a team's success at Google is that team does the manager instill a culture of empathy and compassion among the people there where the individuals who they feel that other people to team care about them, trust them, are interested in them as people, they’re willing to work harder and they're happier and less stressed at doing it. So what we do in the lab, we have tight control over these things to manipulate and see what they do, but the evidence from the real world showing that it increases self-control is pretty prevalent.
[0:20:54.5] MB: So in essence, this kind of emotional strategy is much more sustainable and powerful way of cultivating self-control. It's almost like the kind of idea of pushing versus pulling. You're not constantly struggling to maintain it. It's sort of a foundation or a font within you that's kind of welling up.
[0:21:12.2] DD: That's exactly right. We talk about these emotions as kind of fonts of virtue. That is, if you cultivate these, they’re like parent virtues. They increase lots of other things that people admire, and you're not constantly having to remind yourself from the top down, “Oh, okay! I know I don't want to work, but I've got a work, or I know I don't want to practice, or I know I don't want to not eat the Ben & Jerry's.
If you just feel these emotions, you don't have to remind yourself to do the right thing. They simply make you value those future goals more and then it’s just easier to persevere toward them no matter what they might be. But they also solve another problem that we’re facing these days. So people talk about kind of an epidemic of feeling isolated, or loneliness, or lonely. There's a recent statistic that shows 53% of people report feeling lonely in their public lives and at work.
We know that loneliness is about as bad for your health as is smoking in terms of what it does to human’s longevity because of the constant stress people are under when they feel isolated. When you cultivate these emotions as part of your daily life, I like to say they not only give you grit, they give you grace. That is, they alter your behavior in such a way that makes you not only willing to work harder to achieve your own goals but to invest in others and help them, and what that does is it reinforces that social side, that social network that is so important for our well-being.
David Brooks likes to talk about a distinction between what he calls resume virtues. Those are the virtues that we need to get ahead at work in our careers, like being nose to the grind stone, assertive, hard-charging, and eulogy virtues, those things that we want to be remembered for, things like being generous, being kind, being fair. He laments that these are different aspects of life and how do we balance them.
My argument is they’re only different aspects of life and seems separate because the way we live our lives now. For most of human history, there wasn't a difference. The way that you succeeded was having good character, was being generous, was being trustworthy, was being kind, because that's how you formed relationships that allowed you to cooperate with others, whether it was in hunting, in agriculture and whatever it might be. It's only now, because of the way we live our lives, you can kind of succeed as an individual and get enough money to pay for your other needs.
So if we cultivate these emotions, they build both of those virtues simultaneously. They build our self-control, but they build our social networks and our social support. There's lots of evidence showing that people who express gratitude, who express compassion, who express appropriately calibrated pride, and by that I mean pride in skills that they actually haven’t developed, not kind of egoistic, hubristic pride. We find that attractive. We want to be with those people. We want to work with those people. So I think that's why this is a much more resilient route to kind of building success and building perseverance than the kind of nose to the grind stone willpower way.
[0:24:11.5] MB: So tell me a little bit more about the evolutionary basis of these pro-social emotions.
[0:24:17.7] DD: Sure. People always ask me, “Dave, I want to be successful. So should I be a jerk or should I be a nice guy?” I say, “Well, what's your time frame?” Because if you are a jerk in the short term, you will rise to the top. So there are these wonderful evolutionary models out there. Some of the best done by a guy named Martin Nowak who’s a professor at Harvard, and what he finds is that over the short-term, if you're kind of selfish and you don't cooperate with others and you don't pay back your debts and you don't help people, you will accrue a lot of resources because you’re exploiting other individuals.
But over time, people will recognize that you’re kind of like this and no one will want to cooperate with you. So you’ll lose all the gains that we normally get from working with others. So over time, as individuals who are cooperative, who show empathy, who to help others, who are fair, that gain the most resources.
What we know is that it's emotions like gratitude and compassion that push us to do these things. So, for example, another study in my lab we do is we bring people into the lab and we make them feel grateful or we make them kind of not feel anything in particular, and we give them financial tasks where they can cheat others and make more money for themselves, or they can split profits equally. What we find is when people are feeling grateful they are much more likely to choose a decision where they're going to split money equally with someone else rather than take more for themselves with the other person's expense, even though the other person won’t have any chance to kind of seek vengeance on them for so doing.
So what these emotions are doing is they’re making us behave fairly and, in essence, that's an issue of self-control. For me to behave fairly, I have to be willing to devote some resources to you in the moment and not hung them all off myself for future payoff. So these emotions do the same thing. Same thing with compassion, I feel compassion for someone. I’m willing to give them time, money, shoulder to cry on, things that all might not be the most fun for me to do in the moment, but I do that because in the future I know I'm going to reap those rewards back when I'm in that position.
For millennia and even today, it's these emotions that underlie those behaviors, and what we’re finding is, as I said, they not only make us willing to sacrifice to help other people, but also our own future selves. And that's the best way to ensure that we’re going to be successful down the line.
[0:26:43.5] MB: Another study that you've talked about that I’d love to dig into that kind of underscores the importance of these emotions is the hot sauce study. Would you share that?
[0:26:51.1] DD: Sure, the hot sauce study on compassion an anger. Is that the one you’re thinking of?
[0:26:54.4] MB: Yes, exactly. Yeah.
[0:26:55.3] DD: Yeah, right. So when we began studying self-control, we thought, “Well, who better to talk to than people who are kind of has spent thousands of years thinking about how to resist temptation?” So we started talking to Buddhist monks, and what they told us is when monks first take vows to not drink and to not cheat and to be celibate, they failed a lot just like the rest of us, because they relying on willpower.
But over time, what meditation does and practicing mindfulness does is it begins to unleash the sense of compassion, and we have some few other studies I can talk about later if you like where we show that as little as three weeks of practicing meditation makes people more compassion in their daily lives. But the study you’re talking about is how does it engage our self-control in how we treat other people, because part of self-control isn’t just about saving money or studying. Part of it is about controlling your impulses.
So the way the study is designed is to look at thus feeling compassion based on meditation lead people to actually be able to control their impulses to kind of strike out at others? So we brought people into the lab and we trained them for three weeks. We trained them how to use a smartphone mobile-based meditation program, or one where they would just get logic problems. We told them, “This is cognitive training,” and half of them got meditation training. Half of them got just experience doing logic problems.
After three weeks we brought them back to the lab, what they thought was going to be just a memory test and a writing test. We said, “Okay. We want you to write a speech about your long-term goals. Write a three minute speech about this,” and this is a paradigm that was developed by a guy named Tom Denson who studies aggression. So they would dutifully write out their speech, and then they had to present their speech to someone else, in this someone else was a person who was an actor who works for us who they belief was just another student who was also writing a speech. So they would give their three-minute speech on their life goals and this other person would say to them, “Really? That’s it? I can't believe those are your goals? That doesn't make any sense. How are you going to achieve any of these?” Basically kind of insult them rather harshly, which has been shown repeatedly to make people angry and not only self-report anger but show physiological and the seeds of anger as well, and of course our subjects were kind of angry at this.
Then we moved them into a next study where they had a prepared taste samples for each other. So imagine this, we’re giving you one of those little kind of condiment cups you get where you might put ketchup or mustard in at a salad bar. We’d say, “Okay. You need to prepare a sample for the other guy who you were just talking to. Whatever you put in this cup will be placed in his mouth in its entirety as a taste sample, and you’ve been randomly assigned to prepare the spicy category.” So we give them a bottle of this hot sauce, and the hot sauce is like labeled, “Beware. Very hot. Exceedingly painful.” We simply measure how much hot sauce they put. This is a commonly used measure of aggression, because the more hot sauce you put in, the more pain intentionally you are desiring to cause someone else. Simply measure how much they put in.
What you find is the people who weren't meditating put in on average about 7 grams a hot sauce. Now, I don't know if your audience can visualize that, but 7 grams a hot sauce is a hell of a lot a hot sauce. In most conditions, people put in about a gram when they're not angry at someone, because they know they have to make a sample. Of course, we never make the guy drink it, but they think he is. Now, the people who engaged in meditation and who have the compassion, daily compassion based on experiencing that, they didn't do that, right? They poured about 2 grams on average, and they said, “Yeah, I'm angry at this person.” They would report being angry at them, but they said, “I just don't feel a need to act on that impulse.”
So, again, what we’re seeing here is just simple daily practices that increase compassion in your life, make people much more willing to engage in self-control, because, yeah, it might feel really good in that moment to make that guy feel pain, but we know one of the biggest threats of violence in the world is escalation, and what it does is if he engages in tit-for-tat escalation, things get rapidly out of control. So self-control here is also important to not engage in a situation that might escalate. Again, it's not just self-control and saving money. It’s self-control and controlling your impulses that might be problematic.
[0:31:19.0] MB: It’s such a hilarious study. I mean, even the methodology alone I find really fascinating. But I think kind of at the beginning of that, you made a really important point that we haven't touched on net, which is this idea that self-control is kind of double-sided. It's not only about kind of saving for retirement and eating healthy and making these really positive long-term choices, which is highly correlated with ultimate success in life, but it's also about kind of impulse control and not getting angry or losing your cool in a given moment.
[0:31:48.0] DD: Exactly. Exactly. The interesting thing in that study, which I forgot to mention, is we actually measured people’s executive control. That is their ability to kind of engage in impulse control using a few other cognitive tests, and what we’ve found is those three weeks of meditation didn't increase their ability, their executive control, their ability to tap down problematic responses. What it really did was basically short-circuit those responses from coming up in the first place. As you can imagine, that's a much more robust way of dealing with problems. Instead of trying to correct them, prevent them from happening in the first place and that's exactly the argument we’re making. When you cultivate these emotions, they make you value the long-term and behave in ways that lead to your success, whether talking about social success, or career success, or financial success, by preventing the problematic impulses from happening in the first place, and that's just a more robust way of getting there.
[0:32:43.2] MB: I think that underscores kind of one of the fundamental things we've been talking about, which is that this idea that it's really hard to exercise willpower and these sort of pro-social emotions help us prevent that need to exercise it from ever arising. One of the other things I know you've talked about, and I'd love to hear a little bit about, is how the environment itself and kind of you can shape your environment to essentially do the same thing to kind of prevent these temptations from arising in the first place.
[0:33:08.5] DD: Yeah. There's a lot of work these days, a lot of people talk about developing habits. Charles Duhigg had a great book called The Power of Habit or something like that and how that can lead to people’s success, and that's true. You construct your environment so that a certain time I'm going to come home and study this way or do that, but the problem with habits is if I develop a habit to study, it's not going to help me save money. If I develop a habit to save money, it's not going to help me go to the gym. But if you develop a habit to cultivate these emotions regularly, they influence every decision that self-control happens and they make us value long-term goals in every domain in which we face them. So they kind of are much more a pervasive influence on our lives.
So what we recommend to people is develop habits of these emotions. Regularly, once every day or two, stop and reflect on things that you're grateful for. Now, the trick here is we all have the three or four things in our life that we’re incredibly grateful for, but if you always focus on those three or four things, they’re going to lose their power because we’re going to habituate to them. We find the same results of people reflect on just simple things, like, today when I was lost, someone stopped to give me directions, or someone let me in on the freeway when I was stuck and was waiting there forever. Just small daily things that you can focus on for gratitude are useful. Also, make it a case once a day to kind of reach out and do something to help someone else, because what they're going to do is they’re not only going to express gratitude to you, but they’re clearly in the future when you need it going to help you back, which is kind of placing a marker down for a future booster shot of gratitude to yourself.
For compassion, there are a couple of ways. Practicing meditation even as little as 10 minutes a day and mindfulness increases peoples compassion, so does engaging in perspective taking a few times a week. So what that means is make it a habit every couple of days to stop and try to envision the world through somebody else's eyes. That simple engagement and that practice builds a sense of empathy and build a sense of compassion and makes that a habit.
Pride, it's important to celebrate your successes. That is, don't only let yourself feel proud when you reach the ultimate goal. Make yourself , allow yourself to feel proud of steps along the way because that's what’s going to keep you going, celebrate those little steps. Also have self-compassion for yourself. Don't engage in self-flagellation when you fail. As long as you gave it a good try, have compassion for yourself, which will increase the odds that you're going to give it a good try again the next day rather than just kind of get caught in this kind of guilty shame, feeling of shame.
[0:35:52.0] MB: So let's dig – I want to talk about pride, but before we do, I want to kind of drill down a little bit on this gratitude strategy exercise, because I think you made another really good point. It’s easy to – When you think about pursuing kind of a strategy or a gratitude exercise as gratitude practices you get kind of hung up on the same four or five key things over and over again.
Tell me a little bit more about how we can develop a gratitude practice that really effectively builds gratitude.
[0:36:18.8] DD: Yeah. So the easiest way, the way to start to make yourself begin to do this regularly, is every day or two at either in the morning or at the end of your day, sit back and think about what happened that day that should did or should evoke a feeling of gratefulness in you. Lots of times people will tell me, “I don’t have anything to feel grateful for,” but I have them think about their day and, “Well, yeah. My employee or my child or somebody, one of my friends, actually did something for me today, and I actually didn't stop to think about that,” and how that was a cost on their part to do it
So if you daily reflect on these things, they will every day invoke some sense of gratitude in you and to the extent that you make that a habit after you do it intentionally for a few weeks at a time. It changes the way you view the world. It makes you more likely to actually look for, see and appreciate the favors and the help that other people give you that you might just test, buy or not think about your daily life.
Again, to the extent that you can do that, you’ll have more self-control, that we followed people for three weeks. In that study, we didn't make some do this. We just followed what people normally do, and those who had habits where they experienced gratitude more regularly through those three weeks also showed more self-control and more value for the future. So that's an important way of doing it.
[0:37:47.0] MB: Another strategy that I found that's really effective for cultivating gratitude, and I'm curious what your thoughts are on this, is to – And then I think meditation sort of underpins us to some degree because it gives you the presence of mind to be able to do this, but is to notice the little moments in your life when you kind of naturally feel happiness or gratitude. Even, as you said, kind of a small example of somebody doing you a small favor or something like that and notice those little moments and just spend kind of a moment while that happens, or right after that happens, and just nurture and cultivate that actual feeling, because that helps cultivate kind of the felt experience of gratitude.
[0:38:21.6] DD: That's right, and I think some of it is us being able to reflect on it, but to reflect on it, we actually have to notice it. I think your idea there of actually noticing it in the moment is even more powerful than trying to reflect and force ourselves to re-create it. Again, if you do that regularly, when you feel that you're willing to stop and to nurture that feeling and to let it become kind of bigger inside of you for the moment, that will certainly be a very effective strategy.
[0:38:48.7] MB: And I know you kind of mentioned meditation. I mean, it's obviously one of the most recurrent themes on our podcast. There's so much science kind of validating what an effective strategy it is. What kind of meditation tactics or strategies would you typically do in the studies you were conducting or have you seen the kind of the most research validate it?
[0:39:07.1] DD: Sure. Here is idea – I mean, the important part about what you're saying. Most of the stuff you see on meditation out there shows that, “Oh, it will lower your blood pressure. It will make you more creative. It will help your standardized test scores.” But if you think about where meditation came from and why it was created, the Buddha or other meditation teachers didn't really care about your retirement account or your blood pressure. What they cared about was developing a practice that increased ethical behavior and compassion. So meditation was really created for this social side.
As I’ve said, we've done other studies where we have people meditate either at the foot of a Buddhist llama or actually we've done it now and using smartphone tech, because not everybody has the time or access or even money to go sit at the feet of a Buddhist llama and train. We found similar results. The trick is to actually use one of the apps that's designed by someone who has monastic training. The one we used was Headspace, because Andy Puddicombe, the guy who designed it actually had many years of monastic training, so he knows what he's doing.
In terms of what type of meditation, there're many types out there. We've looked at both loving-kindness meditation and straight up mindfulness meditation, which involves body scanning and noticing the breath and paying attention to feelings, etc., and we found no differences. When we first started doing this work I thought, “Well, maybe we'll find that only with loving-kindness meditation, which focuses on meditations about wanting to care about other people, and that worried me because I worried that if we only found with loving-kindness meditation, how did we actually know it was a practice of meditation itself that was producing these changes rather than hearing someone always say, “It's important to care about other people.” So when we found it for mindfulness as well, it made me truly believe in it because there was no talk in that training of how this should affect your interactions with others.
So my advice to your listeners is whatever type of meditation appears to work for you, it will probably work. I would endorse mindfulness practice or loving-kindness practice and doing it at home with a really good smartphone app or mobile tech is almost as good as going into a center where your training with a person. The upshot of that is it's open to a lot more people if you can do it at a time and place of your own choosing.
So, yes, it's going to lower your blood pressure. Yes, it's going to help you feel more relaxed and all these things, but what it’s really going to also do is just increase your perseverance and your career and your social success simultaneously.
[0:41:40.8] MB: Coming back to pride, when people hear pride, I feel like there can often be kind of a connotation or an idea of arrogance or something like that. How do you distinguish that or how do you think about that?
[0:41:51.8] DD: Yeah. I know that's right. In fact, pride always seems like the odd one out of the three. I think we realize that where we think about it that way because we kind of have a name for this bad type of pride. It’s called arrogance or hubris. But if you think about it, any emotion that’s experienced in the wrong intensity or the wrong context is a problem, or even happiness. Happiness experienced to too great a degree and when you shouldn't feel it is called mania. It's a disorder.
So with pride, the trick is like any other emotion, it has to be calibrated correctly. So if you have pride for inability that you have or that you’re cultivating and you show that, people actually admire that. So to give you an example, in our studies we bring people in and we have them work on some spatial tasks that they don't really care about, anything about like mental rotation and stuff, and some we give feedback to that induces pride. Basically, the experimenter will say, “Oh! You're doing really well at this. This is a really important skill. That's impressive,” and people report feeling proud of this, even though they didn't care about it before, but that's a clue to how pride works, right? The reason we’re proud of things initially is because others around them admire us for it. You’re looking at kids. Kids will do something and they’ll look up at mom and dad and see if they get praise for it. If they do, that's marked as hey, “This is important to those people around you. If you're good at this skill, will want to interact with you, will value you.” Again, throughout evolutionary history, that's what made you a success.
We’ve found that when we make people feel proud of an ability and then we then give them the opportunity to spend time developing this ability on pretty difficult tasks, they'll work 40% longer if they’re feeling proud than if they're not on these tasks, because they believe there's some upshot to developing the skill.
But interestingly, if we then put people in a group. So imagine this, we have a group of three people. One of them enters the group feeling proud about, an ability that's relevant to the group task, the other two don't and we just watch what happens. The person who is feeling proud suddenly starts to become more dominant in the group, starts to work harder and to direct the other people. But the interesting thing about it is these other people, they don't view him or her as kind of a jerk or being overly aggressive. They actually admire this person and they’ll report liking this person more and they’ll report admiring him or her more and wanting to work with him or her more, because those signals of pride are very attractive to us.
Now, if they’re single, then it actually comes to path that we see that the person doesn't have this ability or is expressing pride when he or she shouldn't. Then the whole thing flips and then it's viewed as arrogance and is almost as like, “You’re trying to deceive me or you're claiming something you don't have.”
But pride in and of itself is a very powerful emotion. We feel it because it motivates us to develop a skill that makes us valuable to those around us, and if we’re proud of ourselves, that pushes us to develop a skill that we ourselves value for our own long-term goals.
[0:44:54.7] MB: So to sum this up and kind of make sure that I understand the core thesis of what we’ve been talking about, the fundamental idea here is that self-control is one of the most highly correlated traits with long-term success in the research, but the way we often think about kind of cultivating grit and self-control is fundamentally wrong.
[0:45:14.4] DD: I don't want to say those strategies don't work. Sure, willpower can work, and I'm not saying please don't ever use willpower. In the battle to achieve our goals and to not be shortsighted, we need every weapon in their arsenal. But what I am saying, and I think this is where you're going with it, is the those willpower-based cognitive tools are not only weak, but they’re potentially harmful to us socially and harmful to our health. So this emotional route provides a much more robust and resilient way to get there.
[0:45:44.4] MB: So what would be kind of one piece of homework or sort of an action item that you would give to the listeners to concretely start kind of implementing the strategies we’ve talked about today?
[0:45:55.5] DD: Sure. Two things; choose your emotion, and then over the next few weeks, develop a habit to do it. If you want to do and try gratitude, the next two weeks engage in daily or every other day kind of gratitude journaling, or as Matt said, when you feel an instant of gratitude, try and stop yourself – not from feeling it - stop yourself from being distracted and focus on that feeling, and do that for two weeks and see if you're experiencing a change.
Another way to do it is when you, in the moment, when you’re next healing the temptation that's going to distract you from some long-term goal that you value, stop. Don't try and use willpower Stop. Go and count your blessings on something. Take 10 seconds. Reflect on something for which you’re grateful and I bet you in that moment, 10 seconds later it's going to feel a lot easier to resist that temptation, or download a meditation smartphone app on your phone and start practicing for two or three weeks and see if things don't become a bit easier to focus on what you value in the long term.
[0:46:54.2] MB: And for listeners who want to learn more, where can people find you, your work, your writing, etc., online?
[0:47:01.0] DD: Yeah. The easiest place is my website, which is www.davedesteno, D-A-V-E-D-E-S-T-E-N-O.com, you will find my Twitter link there as well for those of you who would like to follow on Twitter.
[0:47:13.8] MB: Well, David, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing all these wisdom. Some great examples from the research, and I think your work is really, really fascinating. So thank you so much for sharing all these knowledge with our listeners.
[0:47:26.1] DD: Thank you for having me on. I really enjoyed our conversation.
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