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A Powerful Path to Self-Control

by Beth on June 10th, 2019

Self-control is about sacrificing something now in order to gain something in the future. The ability to resist temptation is essential for success. Typical suggestions for increasing self-control include relying on will-power, executive functioning, or reasoning. As you may have realized, these don’t always work.

In his book, Emotional Success, David DeSteno explains why gratitude, compassion, and pride are a much better path for achieving long-term goals. These prosocial emotions originally helped humans build lasting relationships, which were critical for survival. Strengthening relationships often requires a willingness to sacrifice for others. You don’t watch the French Open final because your neighbor needs help moving furniture. You don’t play golf on Saturday because your wife wants to visit relatives.

DeSteno’s research showed that people who felt grateful were more willing to overcome selfish temptations in order to strengthen relationships over the long run. He also found that students who treated themselves with self-compassion spent 30% more time studying for the GRE compared to a control group. Likewise, people who were proud of their abilities devoted 40% more time to building their skills than those who weren’t.

The key to self-control is to use these prosocial emotions with respect to the relationship you have with your future self. Feeling grateful, compassionate towards yourself, and proud of your accomplishments increases the value of future goals, which motivates you to resist temptation and persevere. It’s easier to pass on the chocolate cake when you feel grateful for your health, want your future self to be healthy, and know you will feel proud of yourself for saying no.

Generating positive emotions isn’t as hard as exercising will-power. Keeping a gratitude journal can help you feel more grateful, meditation has been shown to increase compassion, and listing your successes can help you feel pride. And unlike will-power, which is like a muscle that gets tired with use, positive emotions actually get stronger when we use them.

Whatever goals you happen to be pursuing, harnessing the power of prosocial emotions can help you achieve them with greater ease and more enjoyment.

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