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?

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic3 min read
Madonna at War
Her 17-date Brooklyn residency forgoes many of the greatest hits and fleshes out her Madame X secret-agent character to spectacular effect.
The Atlantic4 min readPolitics
Why I Cover Campus Controversies
Each fall semester, America’s long-running debate about campus politics begins again. And I’ll take part this year as I have in years past, especially when the debate concerns matters of free speech. Critics say my energies are misplaced. There is no
The Atlantic5 min readPolitics
DHS Is Finally Going After White Supremacists. It’s Not Going to Be Simple.
A new strategy for the first time places a major priority on domestic terrorism, especially of the extreme right. Now the agency has to actually tackle the problem.