The Atlantic

Better Than Willpower

A new book argues that reason and perseverance aren’t enough. Instead, three emotions are the secret to getting things done.
Source: USA Today Sports / Reuters

Willpower, reason, and executive-functioning skills all seem like ingredients in the recipe for success. So why, then, have so many of us already abandoned our New Year’s resolutions, and it’s not even February yet?

According to Emotional Success, a new book by the Northeastern University psychology professor David DeSteno, it’s because we’re going about pursuing our goals in the wrong way.

Instead of putting our noses ever closer to the grindstone, he advocates relying on so-called social emotions—gratitude, compassion, and pride—to get things done. These emotions, he says, naturally encourage self-control and patience.

They do so by combating people’s tendency to value the present over the future. When we feel grateful, compassionate toward ourselves and others, and proud of our abilities, the struggle to work hard for future rewards becomes, well, less of a struggle.

I recently spoke with DeSteno about his book and research. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Olga Khazan:Can you walk me through what’s wrong with thinking willpower and reason are enough to achieve our goals?

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