The Current

Using willpower to reach your New Year's resolutions? Don't, says psychologist

New research shows willpower doesn’t work to change habits. All the more shocking — psychologist David DeSteno says the “social emotions” of gratitude, compassion and pride are the trick to big change.
Psychology professor David DeSteno says we're going about changing our habits all wrong. (Andre Mehta)

Read Story Transcript

Given up on your New Year's resolutions already? You're not alone. 

Research shows that only eight per cent of resolutions are kept throughout the year, while fully 25 per cent fail within the first week.   

Northeastern University psychology professor David DeSteno says that's because we're going about it wrong, because using willpower to change our habits simply doesn't work.

"When we are trying to use willpower, we are trying to stifle desire we have for something that's more pleasurable in the moment as opposed to something that is better for us in the future," DeSteno, the author of Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride, tells The Current guest host Laura Lynch.

"But if you think about what really moves people and motivates people, it's often not what we think, it's what we feel."

PM take note: Apparently the key to securing that buff bod is a mushy inner-core.

But if you've resolved to lose weight or stop smoking, all is not lost. DeSteno says you should turn to some unexpected psychological tools — that the "social emotions" of gratitude, compassion and pride are what can really help us change our lives.

"These are the emotions that make us willing to invest in other people," says DeSteno.

"An emotion like gratitude makes you willing to cooperate with other people, and therefore it makes you do so by valuing the future more."

Emotions actually increase the value your mind attaches to your future goals so they become easier to pursue.

In one experiment where people had to decide whether to spend money now or invest it and wait to get four times the money at a later date, DeSteno showed that people's self-control was more than doubled if they were asked to think about something they're grateful for. 

He says compassion and pride work in similar ways, by emphasizing cooperation with others. By using these social emotions, people are more likely to do what is better for them in the long run.

"Unlike willpower, where you're trying to stifle a desire to do something that you value in the present, feeling these emotions actually increases the value your mind attaches to your future goals so they become easier to pursue," says DeSteno.

DeSteno is not suggesting dropping willpower altogether, but just that it's not the strongest tool in our arsenals.

"It's also very effortful to do," he says. "What we know over time is the stress of always trying to repress a desire for something to do something else causes poor health outcomes."

Listen to the full audio near the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith.