With all the focus on strategies to resist the proverbial marshmallow and boost self-control, we may be missing something right under our noses. David Desteno, PhD, author and professor of psychology at Northeastern University, proposes a seemingly counter-intuitive approach to building self-control. Instead of demonizing emotion, he argues that some emotional responses such as gratitude, love and compassion may be the most powerful weapons we have against temptation.
According to his research, socially oriented emotions like gratitude, love and compassion greatly enhance self-control and facilitate delayed gratification.
As he writes in The Pacific Standard:
…There are two routes to self-control: cognitive strategies that depend on executive function, willpower, and the like; and emotional strategies that rely on the cultivation of specific feelings…You might prevent yourself from making an impulse purchase by placing your money in an account with stiff penalties for early withdrawal…Or you might do the same by taking a few minutes to stop and count your blessings.
Other research supports this approach. Kurt Gray, a researcher at Harvard University, found that after people donated money to charity or even thought about helping another person they were able to hold up weights longer than those who didn’t engage in pro-social thoughts or actions.
According to Gray, helping others heightens willpower and self-control. As he suggests:
Perhaps the best way to resist the donuts at work is to donate your change in the morning to a worthy cause.
By doing good and by cultivating positive emotions, we arm ourselves against temptation and immediate gratification. Dr. DeSteno sums it up:
We can’t just exert self-control by willing ourselves to resist the first marshmallow or averting our eyes from it; we have to be grateful that someone’s offering it to us in the first place.