in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

Podcast #411: Why Emotions Are Better Than Willpower in Achieving Your Goals

To achieve your goals, you probably think you need one key ingredient: willpower. Grit. Self-control. Discipline. To hear a lot of self-improvement gurus tell it, if you want to get your life together, then just get it together. Just do it. 

Yet while these motivational calls certainly feel good and make us pump our fists, how well does willpower-ing your way to your goals work in reality?

If you’re like a lot of people, who have a string of half-finished aims heaped in the dustbin of their lives, you know the answer is: “Not very well.”

My guest today argues that there’s a reason for that — that while willpower does have a role in our lives, there’s actually a better source of motivation at our disposal: our emotions. 

His name is David DeSteno and he’s the author of the book Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride. Today DeSteno makes the case that cultivating certain feelings will actually enhance our self-control and help us become who we want to be more than simply relying on willpower to get the job done.

Show Highlights

  • Why it’s so hard for us to turn down short-term pleasure for long-term success
  • Why willpower and self-discipline don’t always work 
  • Where willpower comes from 
  • If rationality and willpower don’t work, what does? 
  • The “moral” emotions 
  • How is it that gratitude can push us to right action?
  • Is it as simple as keeping a gratitude journal? How can we amp up our daily gratitude? 
  • Why do humans have emotions?
  • How is compassion different from empathy?
  • Idiot compassion vs true compassion 
  • Why self-compassion is so important, and how to implement it
  • The negative health effects of guilt and shame 
  • The positive side of pride 
  • What role do social connections play in all this?
  • So what role does willpower play?

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Book cover of Emotional Success by David DeSteno.

Connect With David 

David on Twitter 

David’s website

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. To achieve your goals, you probably think you need one key ingredient, willpower, grit, self-control, discipline. To hear a lot of self-improvement gurus tell it, if you want to get your life together, then just get it together. Just do it. Yet, while these motivational calls certainly feel good and make us pump our fist up in the air, how well does willpowering your way to your goals work in reality? If you’re like a lot of people who have a string of half-finished aims heaped in the dustbin of their lives, you know the answer’s probably not very well.

My guest today argues there’s a reason for that, that while willpower does have a role in our lives, there’s actually a better source of motivation at our disposal, our emotions. His name is David DeSteno and he’s the author of the book Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride. Today, DeSteno makes the case that cultivating certain emotions will actually enhance our self-control and help us become who we want to be, more than simply relying on willpower to get the job done. After the show is over, check out the show notes at David joins me now via Sykpe. David DeSteno, welcome to the show.

David DeSteno: Hi, thanks for having me on.

Brett McKay: You got a new book out. It’s called Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride. The problem you’re trying to tackle in this book is that as human beings, we have to resist immediate temptations in favor of longterm goals, if you want to save money, get a job, etc., but that’s hard to do. What makes resisting temptations in favor of longterm goals so difficult?

David DeSteno: Well, the brain has this people call it a glitch and I think in our modern world, it is a glitch built into it where we tend to discount the value of the future. At low levels, valuing rewards or gains in the present over gains in the future makes some sense. A bird in the hand, I know I’ve got something today versus trying to strive for something in the future can be okay. The problem is is the world has gotten a lot more certain over time. Now, I know that if I enjoy smoking a cigarette, I can enjoy it now, but it’s going to cause me problems later. If I enjoy eating something now, it’s going to cause me problems later that’s high fat. If I spend all my money on the new iPhone now, I can enjoy that now, but it’s going to do me wonders if I put it into my 401(k) in the longterm.

Because the world is more sure of what the longterm is going to bring in investing in the longterm, sacrificing pleasures in the short term is really important strategy for success. You see it in things like the concept grit where we have to persevere now, to sacrifice, practice hard, develop our skills, whether it’s athletics or abilities at work to persevere in the long run. That surely predicts success, but because our mind still has this glitch, which wasn’t a glitch evolutionarily speaking in the bygone days, but is now, it’s just built into us to want we want in the moment and to enjoy it and to not place as much emphasis on what the future will bring given some sacrifice in the moment.

Brett McKay: Right. That’s why what makes losing weight hard because that brownie tastes really good now.

David DeSteno: Yeah. It made sense in the old days when you weren’t sure there was going to be a nice high fat, high sugar thing to eat tomorrow. Why not eat two or three of them right now, if you had them? As you’re saying, where things are more available to us, that’s a problem, but we still have this bias built in to watch TV rather than go to the gym, to spend money rather than save it.

Brett McKay: The typical approach whenever say we have a longterm goal, but we have these immediate temptations that can throw us off track is we use willpower. We exert ourselves. We use discipline and flagellate ourselves and put on hair shirts and things like that. You argue that that doesn’t really work very well. Why not, despite that being the typical approach most people take?

David DeSteno: Yeah, it doesn’t, and it’s not just my opinion if you look at the data out there. Psychologists would conduct studies where they’d follow people in their daily lives for weeks at a time using mobile technology. What they found is that one out of every five times we try to resist a temptation that’s getting in the way of a longterm goal, we fail. If we’re tired or we’re stressed or busy, those stats are even worse and for really meaningful goals, things that we really care about, it’s abysmal. I’ll give you an example. Eight percent of New Year’s resolutions are kept until the end of that year, 25% are gone by the first week. I think it’s just objectively true that we have a problem with self-control because of that glitch built in.

Why is it that problem? It’s because this strategy of using willpower, trying to convince ourselves that saving money, that eating healthy, that studying or working hard to develop a skill that’ll get you ahead at work is using willpower to get there is the right way. We’re using tools that are fragile and that are potentially really harmful, so besides the fact that they fail quite often, one thing that we know is we often talk ourselves out of things. We often forgive ourselves for our failures. One thing we studied in my lab is cheating. What we’ll find is that if people are given a task where they can cheat on something, they’ll cheat 90% of the time on these little things. We basically say, “Here’s a coin. Flip the coin. If you get heads, you can do this fun task. If you do tails, you’re going to do this godawful long task.” Then we leave them alone.

What we find is that 90% of them report that they got the short task, which is just statistically impossible, but we watch them on hidden video anyway. What happens is they don’t flip the coin. They just tell us they did. If you ask them later, “How did you behave?” what people will say is, “Oh, yeah, I behaved fairly.” If you have them watch somebody else cheat in exactly the same way, they’ll condemn them for it. That’s hypocrisy right there. What we find out is that if we have them make that decision of whether or not what they did was fair when they actually did cheat, if we prevent them from engaging in reason or rationalization. They actually know what they did was unfair, but if we give them a few minutes to think about it, they’ll create a story for why it was okay. They’ll say, “Well, normally I wouldn’t cheat, but today, I had an appointment that I just couldn’t be late for,” or, “That guy who was sitting next to me …” I kid you not. They said, “The guy who was sitting next to me, I know those long problems had to do with math and logic and he looked like he was an engineering major and so if I gave myself the easy task, I know he was going to get the other one and he’d probably be happier getting that long task.”

This is the long-winded way of saying is what we do is we convince ourselves why it’s okay to give in, why it’s okay to eat the extra brownie, why it’s okay to not go to the gym, why we deserve to spend our money rather than save it. If we do that, then we’re not even going to bother to invoke willpower in the first place, even though it is fragile. I think relying on this idea that humans are like computers where we can just use logic, we can convince ourselves to do the right thing and if we have enough willpower, we will, is a really misguided premise.

Brett McKay: Okay. Let’s recap there. When we exercise willpower, is that like an executive function, like we have to think about it and use our reason in order to apply it? Is that what’s going on?

David DeSteno: Yeah, exactly. Willpower, basically, comes from exactly what you’re saying, this part of the mind that we psychologists terms executive function. It’s named really well. The mental executive is like the boss at work. He tells us the subordinates what they should do and so what you’re doing is you’re like yeah, I really don’t want to go to the gym. I really want to stay home and watch TV or go out to dinner, whatever it might be, but I know I shouldn’t, so I’m going to force myself to do it. Then problem there is your body is always in a state of tension. You have one thing that you want to do that you’re trying to overrule and what that does is it causes stress. We know that over time, stress on the body causes a lot of negative health outcomes.

There’s this really great study by a guy named Greg Miller at Northwestern in Chicago where he looked at kids from disadvantaged backgrounds who were using willpower and executive function to get ahead academically and in life. What he found is that yeah, they were able to do it, but there was a cost because of the stress that they were under and always trying to suppress desires to to do something else. They had premature aging of their immune systems, which ultimately means yeah, you’re succeeding, but you’re not going to be around as long to enjoy it. I think this idea of relying on willpower means we’re always in stress. We’re always in conflict with our desires. It fails and it takes a toll on us. I don’t think it’s the most useful and robust way to achieve our goals.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I thought that was one of the most fascinating insights from the book because … Before the show I was talking to you that as a young man, I was a willpower junkie. I thought it was great using your executive function, being self-disciplined. As you said, in the long run, it doesn’t work, but then also it can work against you because you start rationalizing well, yeah, there’s a reason why I didn’t do the right thing and it’s a good reason because my brain says it’s a good reason.

David DeSteno: Right. Exactly. That’s why you see the hypocrisy result. We have no motive to rationalize other people’s behavior, but we’ll rationalize our own because we don’t want to assume that we’re flawed in some way or deficient in some way. This is why when I see people like Jordan Peterson out there saying, “Stand up. Pull your shoulders back. Do the right thing,” I’m like yeah, well, do the right thing is useful, but the way you’re telling people, you’re setting themselves up to fail for exactly the reasons you’re talking about.

Brett McKay: Okay. If rationality or willpower doesn’t work in the long run, what does? I guess your emotions do, but when people think emotions, they think well, that’s the stuff that gets in the way of our longterm goals because when I get angry or I’m hungry or I’m sad, then I don’t do the thing I know I need to do.

David DeSteno: That’s right. I’m not saying all emotions do. This is why I think the common view out there is willpower is good, emotions are bad when it comes to being gritty or having self-control or pursuing your goals. There are certainly some emotions that focus you on pleasures of the moment, desire, lust, anger. These are things that certainly work that way, but there are other emotions that haven’t been studied that do exactly the opposite. What I like to tell people is think about the time that you have experienced what I call social emotions or moral emotions, things like gratitude or compassion. These are emotions that make you willing to sacrifice for other people. When you feel grateful to someone, you’ll go way out of your way to pay them back, even at cost to yourself. When you feel compassion for someone, you’ll give them time, money, resources, a shoulder to cry on, things that all aren’t fun for you to give in the moment, but you do because you’re investing in them. These emotions, what we’re finding now, not only make you willing to sacrifice to help other people, but also, they make you willing to sacrifice your own future sacrifice to help your own future self. 

Brett McKay: Okay. Let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about these emotions, gratitude, compassion, and pride. Let’s start with gratitude. How is it that the feeling of gratitude you talked about there, whenever people experience gratitude to someone else, they’re more willing to do things for them and sacrifice themselves. How does that work towards yourself, like do you feel grateful for yourself and then you’re more likely to do good things for yourself?

David DeSteno: Yeah, no, no. Yeah, good question. Let me give you an example. One of the classic studies out there, which I’m sure some of your listeners are familiar with on self-control, is what’s called the marshmallow test. It’s a study done by a psychologist named Walter Mischel in the ’70s. What he showed is that if you put one marshmallow down in front of a child, he would say, “Okay. You can have this now. If I’m going to go away and do something, if you can wait until I get back, you can have two.” This is a common dilemma we all face that’s called intertemporal choice. It’s something that I can have right now in the moment that feels good or, if can exert some self-control, I can have a bigger reward later.

For us, we wanted to do the study with gratitude, except we work with adults and most adults don’t like marshmallows, but they do like cash. We would bring them into the lab and we would have them reflect on something that made them feel grateful, reflect on something that made them feel happy, or just tell us about the events of their normal day. Then we would offer them different amounts of cash. You could have $35 now or $75 in three weeks and lots of questions like this. We had them answer these questions and we told them we’d pick one at random and honor it, so you could have the $35 now, if that what you said, or $75 in three weeks.

What we found is just like kids, most adults are impatient. They don’t have self-control. Most adults would say, “Yeah, I’ll take $17 now, rather than $100 in a year,” which I don’t know about you, but if you don’t need that $17 to survive, an investment that will quintuple in a year is a pretty good investment. If we made them feel grateful, they wouldn’t take that deal. Suddenly, they became much more future-oriented. They discount the value of the future less. They required over $30 before they’d take that deal.

What gratitude is doing is it’s preventing the human mind’s normal bias to discount the value of the future. That is it makes us value the future more. If we value the future more, it becomes easier to persevere toward it. Suddenly, we’re not trying to overrule a desire for pleasure in the moment. We’re valuing the future more and so it becomes easier and less stressful to persevere toward it. Why does it work this way? Well, for millennia, what made humans a success was that we had good character. We had strong relationships. If you wanted to partner with someone, you had to be fair. You had to be honest. You had to pay back your debts and emotions like gratitude were what made us do that. The way it does that is it makes us value rewards in the future over rewards in the moment. It does the same thing with any type of longterm gain, even though they don’t affect anybody but our own future selves and so since that time, we see people who are grateful, they show less addictive behaviors. They have better savings. They exercise more. They’ll study harder. They’ll procrastinate less, all of these things that focus us on the future.

Brett McKay: That’s weird because that gratitude makes us on the future because gratitude, often when you think of being grateful, you’re looking in the past and saying well, I’m grateful for that thing that happened.

David DeSteno: That’s exactly right, but if you think about the reason the human mind has emotions, if they’re focused on the past that’s not useful, that’s done. The reason we have emotions is because they’re designed to shape what we do next. They’re designed to influence our behavior and adaptive manner. If you’re feeling frightened and you’re in dangerous environment, when you feel that fear, it makes you much more careful. It makes you much more ready to respond to threats.

What about gratitude? Well, if you think about this way, so if you gave me $10 today and I borrowed it from you and I didn’t pay you back, I’d be ahead 10 bucks. Over time, if I didn’t pay you back, you would never want to interact with me again and so I would lose all the aggregated gains and benefits I would have from having you as a partner throughout the rest of my life and those certainly outweigh the $10 that I got in the moment. What gratitude does is yes, I’m grateful to you for something in the past, but the reason I feel that emotion is because it makes me more willing to then pay you back, which ensures my future success by keeping that relationship strong.

Brett McKay: That’s crazy. Is it just as simple as you just start keeping a gratitude journal and eventually, you start seeing yourself have more self-control?

David DeSteno: Yeah. In fact, we followed people. We didn’t do gratitude journals, but we followed people through three weeks of their daily life and we charted every day the intensity of gratitude they felt and the intensity of happiness they felt and other emotions. Then at the end of that time, we gave them another financial task like this where they could have small financial rewards right then, we’d hand them cash, or they could have larger financial rewards if they were willing to wait. We found in a very kind of dose-dependent way the more gratitude people felt in their daily lives, the more self-control, the more patience they had, the more willing they were to say you know what? I’ll wait for the longer reward, the larger reward, rather than taking it in the moment now.

What that suggests then is that if daily gratitude predicts your self-control, then if we can amp up your daily gratitude, you’re going to have more self-control. We’re doing those studies now where we can actually look up people if we have them daily reflect on things for which they’re grateful for, make it a normal part of their daily life. Should that increase self-control? It should. There’s data out there already suggesting it lowers addictive behaviors, it increases exercise, all the things that we associate with self-control.

Brett McKay: The nice thing about feeling grateful is unlike willpower where you can “deplete” it, it’s not fragile. You can have more and more and more, right?

David DeSteno: Right. It doesn’t run out. It’s not a contest between opposing values and the mind. When you feel grateful, it just makes you value the longterm more. The other thing is I like to say a habit of gratefulness is way better than any other habit you can have. We all know that developing habits is one way to foster success. If I develop a habit to study, it’s going to make me more willing to study rather than not study. If I develop a habit to put money away every week, it’s going to make me save money.

The problem with that is a habit that you devise to help you study or to save money or to go to the gym is only useful for that one thing, so a habit I have that makes me go to the gym isn’t going to help me with saving money. If you make it a habit to cultivate gratitude in your daily life, it benefits all of those longterm decisions. Any decision you face where there’s a longterm reward it makes you value it more and it makes you persevere toward it. I like to think of it as a booster shot for self-control, all types of self-control dilemmas that you’re going to face.

Brett McKay: That’s awesome. Well, let’s move on to the next one, compassion. I think that’s maybe a virtue or emotion that a lot of people might understand. How is compassion different from, say, empathy? Is there a difference?

David DeSteno: Yeah. In the common vernacular, people often use them interchangeably, but scientifically what we mean now by empathy and compassion are different things. Empathy is my ability to understand and feel what you’re feeling. If I have a lot of empathy and I’m next to someone who’s sad, I’m going to feel their sadness. If I’m next to someone who’s happy, I’m going to feel their happiness. Compassion is different. Compassion is an emotion that’s focused on helping someone who is in distress. The important thing there is to help them, I don’t have to feel their distress. The Buddhists make a big distinction between empathy and compassion because if you are always feeling people’s pain, over time, what that’s going to do is burn you out. You see this among healthcare workers a lot of the time. People will have what they call compassion fatigue. If you’re working with people who are always in distress, you burn out because you’re feeling their pain and suddenly, you start trying to protect yourself from that because it’s overwhelming.

Compassion, you don’t have to feel someone else’s pain. All you have to do is care about them and want to help them. What again what we’re showing that does is the same way if I feel compassion for someone, I will devote time, money, and effort at some cost to myself to help them. If you have compassion and self-compassion for yourself, what that makes you do is more willing to help your own future self. Hal Hershfield, who’s a psychologist at UCLA, has got these great data where he shows that he takes people’s faces and if you take the average 23 year old and he’ll age morph their face. He’ll show them what they might look like at 70. When he shows people what they might look like at 70, suddenly, they’re more willing to divert more money to their retirement account than they are to spend it on a new pair of jeans or a new smartphone and even more if he then alters that image so that future you looks kind of sad. They’ll give even more and because what it’s doing is it’s making you feel compassion for future you. Suddenly, it’s making that real.

What we find is now people feel more compassion in their daily lives, they’re more again willing to value the longterm, to save money, to behave in ways, to procrastinate less, to work harder because subconsciously, not that they’re consciously thinking about this, but subconsciously, it makes them more willing to accept sacrifices now that will benefit them in the future. It basically gives them grit from the bottom up.

Brett McKay: Just to clarify, compassion doesn’t mean you’re letting people off the hook or yourself off the hook necessarily. You can acknowledge you did something wrong …

David DeSteno: No, yeah. No, right.

Brett McKay: … because that’s why I think a lot of men particularly are like compassion is wussy because you’re just letting people not be responsible for their mistakes or whatever.

David DeSteno: No, no. It’s funny. Again, the Buddhists have this term, what they call idiot compassion versus true compassion. Idiot compassion is just giving in to make somebody feel good just because they’re upset. You’re right. Sometimes people have to be upset or face difficulties to develop the skills, face hardships to do what they’re going to do in the longterm. If you don’t even try to eat right, if you don’t even try to exercise, then you shouldn’t have compassion for yourself because what you’re doing is being a wuss. You’re just giving in.

No. True compassion means compassion in the face of a good faith effort, where somebody has tried something and they failed you you can yes, like you said in beginning, we can wear hairy shirts and flagellate ourselves, but that’s not going to solve the problem. If we have compassion for a good faith effort, it actually has been scientifically shown to increase efforts down the line. Athletes who actually show self-compassion where they don’t reach their goal in a day, but don’t criticize themselves, actually show better performance in the long run. Students who are studying for exams, but they show compassion because they didn’t quite reach their goal, but they tried really hard, show better academic performance and less procrastination over time. You’re exactly right. You’re not just saying oh, it’s okay. It doesn’t matter. No, but when you do fail rather than flagellate yourself, have some compassion as long as it’s a good faith effort and try again tomorrow.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I think that’s important. Something I’ve learned, too, just through experience because when I was a younger man, whenever I failed, I’d just do the flagellation thing. Then the thing was, you went through the spiral where you’re just like well, I’m not even going to try anymore and you don’t do it and then you’re worse off.

David DeSteno: You do. Over time, people say, “Well, Dave, what about guilt and shame? Can’t guilt and shame make you do the same thing?” which you get from self-flagellation. In very small doses, guilt and shame can give you the kick in the pants you need to work harder and do the right thing, but over time, they make you give up because they are very aversive states and they’re very bad physically, too. Guilt and shame over time cause all types of negative health effects, inflammatory responses, you name it, whereas things like gratitude, compassion, and pride we’ll talk about actually lower heart rate, lower blood pressure, increase immune response, give you better sleep, and so they’re a lot more resilient path toward doing the right thing than self-flagellating.

Brett McKay: How do you experience self-compassion? How do you develop that?

David DeSteno: Both types of compassion, so there are two ways. For compassion in general, believe it or not, one of the ways that we found that works the best is to actually do practices in meditation. If you listen to lots of podcasts or read the Times or the Atlantic, what you’ll see is yeah, if you meditate, it’ll lower your blood pressure. It’ll increase your memory. It does all of those things, but the reason it was created is to increase compassion and ethical behavior. We’ve actually shown using mobile apps where people can do 10 minutes of meditation a day. Over time, it makes them control their anger better. It increases their compassion for everyone, including themselves.

An important way to do self-compassion, actually, is to stop and to think about what I’m saying to myself right now, would I say that to a friend or an employee who failed? Most times, unless you’re a real jerk, the answer is no. We are much harsher on ourselves. One reason we are is because when I’m saying this to somebody else, I can see the kind of pain that I’m causing them. I can see the distress in their eyes and that puts a break on it. When I’m criticizing myself, I don’t see that because I can’t see my own face and so one tactic that I encourage people to use is to actually stop and think about would you say this to somebody else. If not, what would you say to them and say that to yourself because we tend to just be harsher on ourselves more often than not because we don’t see the emotional damage that we’re causing. We don’t see the pain we’re causing.

Brett McKay: I love that, so meditate. It’s not hard. You use one of those apps.

David DeSteno: No, 10 minutes a day, exactly.

Brett McKay: Or treat yourself how you treat someone else who’s going through a hard time. Well, okay. Let’s talk about pride because that’s an interesting one because when people think of pride, they don’t think that usually in a positive way. They think of it sort of hubristic a-holes, so how is pride a pro-social emotion?

David DeSteno: Yeah, so pride, it always seems as you’re saying the odd one out of the three for the very reason you’re saying, but if you think about it, any emotion that’s experienced in the wrong intensity or the wrong context is a problem. It’s just in pride, we have a name for it. We call it arrogance. We call it hubris or a-holeness, as you might say. Even happiness, if you experience it when you shouldn’t or in too intense a degree, we call that mania. It’s a disorder. It’s no different with pride. The trick about pride is if it’s authentic, if it’s calibrated to the sense that I’ve worked hard to develop a skill or an ability that other people value, that’s useful and feeling proud of that is an important marker. It makes us willing to keep going, to keep developing that skill because others around us value it. If you’re a dad or a mom and you have a young child, that young child’s going to be looking to you when he or she does something. They’re going to be looking for praise. If you give them praise, it marks that behavior as something that this family unit or this culture values and they become proud of it. The negative side of that we call peer pressure, but the positive side of that is a way that we can encourage people to build skills.

In our experiments, what we’ll do is we’ll bring going into the lab and we’ll have them work on tasks that we call visual-spatial ability, something that nobody knows anything about or cares a lot about. We’ll give them feedback that they’re doing really well on the test in a way that makes them feel pride and when they feel pride for this ability because those people around them are admiring it, suddenly, they’ll devote more time and energy, 40% more on average, to work toward and hone these skills. Why? Because other people around them care about it and that must mean it’s important. Hearkening back to what I was saying with gratitude, what leads to success is that other people value an ability. They want you on their team. They think you’re a good partner. What pride does is it marks an ability that others around you value and it pushes you to develop that skill and to internalize that this is something important and in that sense, it’s a hugely motivating emotion.

Brett McKay: I think the key difference of your approach you’re advocating here and, say, typical approaches, I think the typical approaches, self-improvement, self-control is a very individual task, something you do in the closets of your soul or whatever. You’re arguing that if you really want to have lasting success with your self-control, it has to be a social experience. What role do social connections play in all of this?

David DeSteno: Yeah, that’s a very important part of this perspective. If you think about it, why did self-control originally evolve? It didn’t evolve so that you could save money, so that you could study for exams, that you could complete the whole 30. The reason it originally evolved is so that you would develop good moral character, the things we talked about. You would be fair. You would be honest. You would keep your promises. You would work hard to develop a skill that others admired. That’s why self-control came about. It was these emotions that undergirded that.

The important part about it then is because it really comes from this social milieu is when we practice these emotions, they not only give us grit, they also give us, what I like to say, they also give us grace. That is they give us a character that others admire, that others want to connect with. That in and of itself reinforces our success. David Brooks likes to talk about a division between career, sorry, between resume virtues. Those are the things that we need to get ahead at work like nose to the grindstone, be aggressive, work hard, and eulogy virtues, those things that we want to be remembered for, things like being fair, being kind, being generous. He laments the fact that we’ve structured our careers and our lives such that these two are separate. I think that’s true. They’re separate not because they’re inherently separate, but because it’s the way we tend to think about the world.

If you practice cultivating compassion and gratitude in your life and a true pride in your abilities, those aren’t separate virtues. Those emotions are going to make you behave in ways that give you more self-control, more perseverance, and more grit, but at the same time, they’re going to make you behave in ways that draw other people to you and that reinforce those social relationships and give you a much more balanced success and a higher sense of wellbeing. One of the biggest problems people are facing right now in the world, especially the workplace, is people are lonely. More than 53% of people report being lonely in their public lives, especially in their careers. It’s because of the way we’re pursuing success with this nose to the grindstone, it’s all about me. I’m going to focus on my executive function. We’re suppressing these emotions that have undergirded success in the social realm and the individual realm for decades.

Brett McKay: That’s probably why things like Alcoholics Anonymous, Weight Watchers, those things work because you’re embedded with a community of people who are supportive and you can experience those social emotions.

David DeSteno: Yeah. If you look at them, none of those groups tell you use more willpower to not drink or not shop or whatever it may be because they know that doesn’t work. They have things like gratitude journals. They have things like showing compassion to each other and supporting each other, pride and sobriety coins. Those emotions are stronger, more reliable source and the reason they build self-control is not only do they make the mind value the future more, but they build those social relationships that reinforce success.

People talk about grit being important for success and it is in terms of the executive function route, but one thing we know about grit is those people fail less because they’re working really hard. When they do fail, it hits their wellbeing 120% more than the rest of us. It’s because they don’t have those social connections to support them when they fall. It’s because of this atomistic, I’m going to do it myself, I don’t care. I’m just going to work all these hours and suppress my social-emotional side. It becomes a very tenuous route. When you do fail, when those hard times come, you’re not going to have the tools to help you be resilient.

Brett McKay: What you were saying is you need to get embedded in a social group if you really want to have that longterm success with your self-control. That could be joining a crossfit gym if you’re trying to exercise regularly.

David DeSteno: It can be, but it doesn’t even need to be. It can be the people who are doing the same thing with you, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be any strong social relationships in your life. Even if you’re the only person in your group of friends who’s going to the gym, if you have other group of friends around you, what those will do is just give you the support. They’ll enhance these moral emotions in your daily, which will help you go to the gym.

Think about it this way. Within a social network, emotions spread and so if I’m feeling grateful today, that’s going to make me want to invest in other people and so to help you if you come to ask me for something. Then you’re going to feel grateful to me. Suddenly, you’re going to feel grateful because I felt grateful. That gratitude you’re going to feel is going to help you with all of your self-control problems as a whole. Because these emotions spread in social networks, what you find is that group offices that have higher levels of compassion and gratitude daily within their corporate culture have greater levels of success, lower levels of absenteeism, less stress.

Google did this great study where they were trying to predict which teams had the best success. They thought it was going to be technical prowess. That wasn’t it. The number one predictor of which teams had the best success was which managers fostered a culture of empathy and compassion on their teams. What that meant is which teams felt like the others around them cared about them, were going to have their backs, cared about their social lives, cared about their goals, and supported each other. Those teams did way better than did teams where it was every person on it for themselves trying to outshine his or her partners.

What I’m saying is these emotions, by simply cultivating them not only help you with your self-control individually, but flow through those groups. They build friendships and bonds that not only help you then feel those emotions in the future, but also combat your loneliness. We know that being lonely is about as bad as smoking for you in terms of the years it takes off your life. It makes you happier while it also makes you more successful. I think that’s a win-win.

Brett McKay: Yeah. What would you say to someone who would say, “Well, I’ve got social connections, but they’re not that great. They’re kind of bringing me down.” Should people be proactive about the people they hang out with regularly or what can they do about that?

David DeSteno: Yeah. This is the problem. People are saying, “Well, why are people reporting more loneliness in an age of increased social connection? I have hundreds of friends on Facebook or lots of acquaintances.” What matters isn’t really the number of people. What matters is the subjective sense of closeness I have with them. A person who has two really good friends can feel a lot less lonely or isolated than a person who has 20 acquaintances that they see. The nice thing about these emotions is when you practice gratitude, when you practice compassion and even pride, they’ve been shown to reinforce the quality of relationships. We want to be around others who show compassion because they’ll help us. We want to be around others who have authentic pride and have good abilities. In fact, we’ve shown that in our lab. We bring people into teams and the people who are showing authentic pride quickly rise to a leadership role. Others don’t think they’re jerks or a-holes. They actually value them as long as the pride they’re showing is related to their skills and success.

What really matters and the advice I’d give your listeners is by using these emotions, you’re going to find who are your true friends and even the friends that are on the boundary that are acquaintances. If you start showing them compassion and empathy and pride, as long as they’re good people, it’s going to reinforce those relationships and make those bonds closer. It’s really the closeness of the bonds, not the number of bonds that matters.

Brett McKay: I know we’ve been dogging on willpower, but what purpose does it serve? If it’s not that great, if it’s fragile in the longterm, does it serve a purpose?

David DeSteno: Yeah, it serves a purpose and please don’t leave this podcast episode thinking that I’m saying you should never use willpower. In the battle to reach our goals and to be future-oriented, we need every weapon in our arsenal. The reason we have it is for the reason exactly that you said a while ago. Some emotions focus us on immediate desires and so what’s happening in any instance where we’re trying to decide should I save money for the longterm or spend it now? Should I go to the gym or should I just blow it off and eat the extra Ben & Jerry’s now, is on a very rational executive function kind of prefrontal cortex level, we’re trying to make that decision and we’re also making it at an intuitive level. Because we have two different routes, we have two different ways of thinking about it. We have emotions that focus us on immediate pleasures. We have emotions that focus us on longterm goals. Willpower does the same. The reason we have willpower is so we can overrule some emotions if we’re showing the wrong ones.

The problem is that willpower route just tends to be weaker than the emotional route for the reasons I’ve said and so the reason we have it is because it can be useful. It can be a corrective device if we’re giving into desire. My argument is if you cultivate the right emotions, you’re not going to give into desire. The reason we have it, willpower, is we don’t always have the right emotion and so it can definitely serve a purpose. It’s just that it’s weaker and it causes more stress to use that route than the social-emotion one.

Brett McKay: Okay. What you’re saying here then is you can use your willpower if, say, you’re feeling angry, right? Use your willpower in that instance because you know anger is going to cause you to make the bad decision. Use your willpower to direct your emotions to one of those more pro-social ones, so say you’re angry at your kid because they’re doing something dumb. You can say okay, I’m feeling angry now. I’m going to use my willpower and I’m going to think of something grateful or have some compassion for my kid and then let that-

David DeSteno: Right. Exactly, so, well, two ways. Either in that moment I’m going to stop and I’m going to just reflect on something that I’m grateful for that maybe my child did for me in the past or anybody did for me in the past and that gratitude, as it comes online or the compassion as it comes online will actually rapidly decrease that angry urge to lash out. Another thing that you can do is just to the extent that you cultivate emotions like gratitude and compassion daily regularly, they’ll short circuit that desire for anger before it even happens. We have studies where we have people do meditation for three weeks, 10 minutes a day. We put them in a situation where using actors where an actor insults them on their performance on a job and they have the chance to then seek vengeance on this person and lash out at him. What we find is those who practice meditation daily report more daily higher levels of compassion, they don’t show the same desire to lash out and so you can even short circuit that problem from occurring in the first place if you cultivate these emotions more regularly.

Brett McKay: I love that. Well, David, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

David DeSteno: Yeah. The easiest way is to go to my website, which is www.davedesteno, D-E-S-T-E-N-O, dot com or my Twitter, which is @daviddesteno, all one word.

Brett McKay: Awesome. Well, Dave DeSteno, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

David DeSteno: Thank you. Take care.

Brett McKay: My guest today was David DeSteno. He’s the author of the book Emotional Success. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at Also, check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at If you enjoy the podcast, I’d appreciate if you’d give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher, help us out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for your continued support and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

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