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3 Best Practices for Future Happiness

An Interview with David DeSteno

Grow
Painting of flowers and bird

Festiva Maxima by Jessica Watts

“We all want our future self to be happy, so we ask: ‘What can I do to relieve this person’s suffering?’

Whether it’s improving your health, building a career, or learning to play the piano, the key to success and happiness is the ability to delay gratification. However, the traditional approaches to practicing this kind of self-control—like cultivating willpower—are not the most effective strategies, says David DeSteno PhD, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and fellow of the American Psychological Association. In his new book, Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride, Dr. DeSteno argues that our prosocial emotions evolved specifically to help us resist immediate temptations in order to build the skills and character that help us succeed. We recently spoke with him about the limitations of willpower, how cultivating prosocial emotions can help us reach our goals, and ways to bring our future selves into our social circle.

S&H: You’ve written that “our notion of how self-control works is flawed.” How so? 

David DeSteno: In order to reach our goals—whether it’s the ability to save money, eat healthy, or commit to a spiritual path—it’s going to require a certain amount of sacrifice in the moment to ensure greater outcomes in the long run. But the most common tools we’re told to use to practice self-control—willpower and other cognitive tricks, like distracting ourselves from what we want—involve suppressing or ignoring our emotions, which just doesn’t work very well. 

And when we do this, we cut ourselves off from the most powerful tools we have to practice self-control: our emotions. Sure, there are emotions that push you toward immediate gratification, such as lust or anger. But there are other emotions that help us take a long-term view because they are tied to social living, like gratitude, compassion, and an authentic sense of pride. 

A Garden Grows Here Credit Jessica Watts
A Garden Grows Here by Jessica Watts

The reason we have these kinds of moral emotions, from an evolutionary perspective, is that they make us forward-looking. They push us to be generous, honest, diligent, and the like, all of which will bring future gains, even though in the moment being so might require a bit of effort or sacrifice. In short, these are the emotions that help us form good character and help us be viewed as good relationship partners—which, for millennia, is what mattered for success. In the present, we can still use these emotions to focus our minds on the future, but we can use them not only to build relationships with other people, but also to actually build a relationship and support our own future self by making us more patient and willing to sacrifice for him or her. 

Not only do the cognitive strategies not always work, you suggest that they can also be harmful. 

That’s right. It takes a lot of effort to engage willpower and what we psychologists call executive function, which you can think of as our own conscious awareness trying to direct our behavior. It takes a lot of effort to suppress a desire to do something fun in the moment in order to do something important that will help you in reaching long-term goals. 

As an example, Northwestern University psychologist Gregory Miller found that teaching young people from disadvantaged backgrounds how to use executive function skills—willpower and related strategies—did increase their performance on usual measures of success, but there was a cost. It also was associated with premature aging at the molecular level—a sign of stress on the body.

So while you may have greater success in terms of reaching your goals when you employ willpower to reach them, you’re also going to pay a price physiologically. It’s not a very robust or resilient path to follow, because you’re achieving one thing by harming another. However, when you cultivate emotions that lead the mind to value the long term, you’re changing the nature of the mental process so that it’s not a battle. It’s not that you’re strengthening your ability to squash temptation; you’re reducing the temptation in the first place. If people value the long-term goal more than they normally would, they’re more likely to choose to pursue it as opposed to being distracted by other temptations. 

There is a lot of evidence showing that gratitude, compassion, and pride actually act as forms of physical balm on the body. They tend to reduce stress responses. They lower blood pressure. They enhance the ability to sleep at night. When you’re feeling compassion, it calms heart rate and stress hormones. What this means is that as you feel these emotions throughout your day more regularly, they can heal the body at the same time that they’re leading you to focus your attention on long-term goals. 

How do you know that gratitude, compassion, and pride make people value the future more than the present?

In one of our experiments, we led people to feel grateful, happy, or neutral by having them recall an event from their past. We then asked them several questions of the form: Would you rather have $X or $Y in Z days? Y was always greater than X and Z varied over days to weeks. What we found is that gratitude—not happiness, meaning it’s not just that people are feeling good—actually predicted people’s willingness to sacrifice in the moment for a future goal. Grateful people were much more willing to say, “I’ll wait. I don’t want the smaller reward now. I’ll have a larger reward later.” We found something similar when we followed people for three weeks in a different study. Those who tended to feel higher levels of gratitude, on average, showed more self-control. They were willing to wait longer for a larger monetary reward. The upshot here is that the more you experience gratitude, the more likely it is that self-control and grit will pop up when you face a challenge in the moment. In this second study, it’s not as if right before we tempted people we asked, “Are you feeling really grateful right now?” Instead, we just put the temptation in front of them and predicted their response based on how often they regularly feel gratitude. Pride and compassion have been shown to work in similar ways.

De Steno Pic 2011
“It’s not that you’re strengthening your ability to squash temptation; you’re reducing the temptation in the first place. Those who tended to feel higher levels of gratitude, on average, showed more self-control.”
— David DeSteno

Let’s say your long-term goal is to become a really good pianist. Can you walk us through how cultivating these prosocial emotions can help us reach this goal?

Sure. What that goal requires is a certain amount of practice every day. No matter who you are—even if you love playing the piano—sitting there and doing hours’ worth of difficult practice by yourself can be tedious, especially when there are other tempting options around. In this situation, a normal routine would be: “Well, I have to practice today. I don’t want to practice. I want to go visit my friend or I want to go to the movies. Maybe I’ll just skip practice today.” 

The usual advice would be “No, suppress those urges to want to do something else and make yourself practice. Use willpower to make yourself do it.” Or you might try to distract yourself from your other options by thinking, I’m not even going to look and see what’s playing at the movies today, so that I’m not tempted to do something other than play the piano. 

These strategies may work at times, but there’s been lots of research showing that if you experience many temptations in close proximity, willpower wanes. So when you turn to your next goal—say, eating a salad instead of a piece of chocolate cake—your willpower is then reduced because you’ve used so much of it on forcing yourself to practice the piano. You turn to the next goal and you don’t have much gas left in the tank. 

Whereas, if you’re feeling these prosocial emotions, it’s going to make it easier to persevere in all of your long-term goals. If that day you just stop to count your blessings or reflect on something that you’re grateful for, it is going to make you value all your future goals more than you normally would and therefore make it less of a struggle to actually engage in pursing them. These emotions are like inoculations against temptation. 

When I look at the three emotions you write about—gratitude, compassion, and pride—pride seems like the odd one out. Isn’t pride more self-involved than gratitude or compassion?

To return to the evolutionary model, one way our ancestors could ensure that they were valuable to others and could form relationships is that they had some skills that the group saw as valuable. Pride is the engine that powers us to work toward skills for which people give us social acclaim, even in the face of difficulty. Now, because we can also take a meta-viewpoint on ourselves—that is, we can be our own audience—we can be proud of our own abilities. Because we can be our own audience is part of the reason why pride seems self-centered. But in actuality, pride makes us strive for approval, whether that approval comes from others or ourselves. And the goal is to encourage us to persevere in the face of short-term difficulties so that we can achieve valued ends. 

It’s interesting that we can bring our future selves into our social circle when cultivating prosocial emotions. Can you say more about that?

Sure. Whether it’s helping someone else or helping our own future self, cultivating these emotions works the same way. They make us willing to cooperate with someone, and cooperation requires being able to take a long-term view—to know that success comes from sharing and diligence as opposed to selfishness and laziness.

So Very Rosy Credit Jessica Watts
So Very Rosy by Jessica Watts

When it comes to your future self, however, there are specific strategies that you can use to help promote self-control. Psychologist Hal Hershfield has written about how people’s behavior changes after being shown a picture of their future self. He’ll take a picture of you, age-progress it with face-morphing software, show you a picture of your future self, and then ask you, “Do you want to spend more money now, or do you want to put more money in retirement?” As people turn a dial up to indicate how much they want to put toward retirement, they see their future self’s face go from sad to happy. When you see your future self look sad, you think, This is not good—he (or she) is in trouble. So, it’s really a sense of compassion that’s driving this effect. 

The trick is to make your future self real to you. It’s easy to ignore your future self, because we’re never going to meet her or him in person. But by focusing on trying to feel what he or she will feel, it makes it easier to imagine where you will be in 10 or 20 years. By thinking about what you can do in this moment for future you—it’s almost like a compassion meditation. We all want our future self to be happy, so we ask: “What can I do to relieve this person’s suffering?” That will evoke compassion and drive your responses. If you ask, “What can I do so future me will be proud of present me?” that too will alter your behavior. 

So how do we cultivate these emotions? And do they only work gradually over time or are they something we can draw on in a moment of temptation? 

That’s a great question. There are two ways you can do it. There’s the habitual way, where we work to feel these emotions more generally in life, and then there’s the break-the-glass, emergency way when you need these emotions in a specific instance. But I tend to emphasize the gradual approach to cultivating these emotional states in our lives. 

One way to do it with gratitude is through keeping a gratitude diary. If you have people take five minutes daily and reflect on things that they’re grateful for in that day—it doesn’t have to be this earth-shattering event, it can be any little, daily things that we’re grateful for—it can boost average levels of gratitude and, with it, patience and perseverance. You can do the same thing with compassion. If you stop every day and think about your connections to other people, you will feel more empathy and compassion toward them over time. Another way to do this is through meditation. We’ve shown that regular practice of mindfulness for as little as three weeks increases the compassion people automatically show toward others.

And it’s always worth reminding people that it’s important to have compassion for themselves, as well. People who treat themselves with self-compassion for their failings as they’re pursuing a goal actually have better outcomes long term in pursuing that goal.

The same goes for pride. Be willing to pat yourself on the back for small steps. Most goals worth pursuing take time, and if you don’t celebrate the victories along the way, you’re hindering your motivation for the journey. 

How Gratitude Can Beat Climate Change

One of the problems we’ve always faced—but which seems even more problematic now—is how we solve problems that require cooperation on a very large scale, whereas the prosocial emotions that lead to cooperation evolved in smaller groups. There’s a famous dilemma that economists refer to as “the tragedy of the commons.” The typical example is an open, publicly owned pasture where people are free to graze their cows for profit. What tends to happen in such a situation is that people start putting more and more cattle on the land because it’s common land and grazing is free. But what happens when everybody is selfish and puts more animals on the pasture to satisfy their immediate goal for profit is that the pasture gets depleted—and eventually everyone goes hungry. 

If you think about climate change, it’s a similar situation in that it requires cooperation to solve the problem. It requires all of us to be willing to pay a little more now for cleaner energy to ensure that down the line the resource—our environment—is going to remain the same. Or it requires us to reduce our consumption of certain fish, so that the stocks don’t become depleted. In each case, it requires some sacrifice now by everyone to ensure a better future. The problem, of course, is that that future may be decades away. So we have an intertemporal dilemma. People wonder: Why am I going to sacrifice now for something in the future that may never come to pass?

But an even bigger problem when it comes to self-control on a societal level is that people begin to ponder whether everyone else will sacrifice, too. They ask: “Why should I make these sacrifices if no one else does? My efforts alone can’t solve these big problems.” So even if people have the self-control to sacrifice immediate comforts or pleasures for future gain, they have to believe that others will do likewise, otherwise their sacrifices are for naught. In short, they have to be able to trust that other people are going to be cooperative and sacrifice as well. On the old common pasture, you could tell who was breaking the rules, but that’s not so easy when we’re talking about how much power people use or what policies they vote for. 

Here, the prosocial emotions help, too. They not only make people more willing to sacrifice in the moment to better the future—say, to pay higher energy bills to reduce their own carbon footprint— but they also make people more willing to trust others. Within a network like a society, if I do something that is going to make people more willing to trust their peers, that’s going to dramatically increase their willingness to cooperate. 

A great example comes from Denmark. The Danes are very progressive when it comes to investing in sustainability. They’re also a society that has instituted empathy and compassion training as part of early education. Now, it’s hard to draw a direct causal link between those two things—to say that because the Danes work to cultivate compassion, they’re willing to accept higher costs to better the environment. But based on the experiments I do in the lab, I think it’s quite possible. 

I think that if we teach people to cultivate these emotions early in life, it will make a society that is more forward-looking, which will help it deal with a lot of the problems that require investments in the future. In short, changing emotional norms will likely also change what a culture values.  —David DeSteno


Sam Mowe is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. His interviews have also appeared in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and The Sun. He is also the editor of Lineages, a publication of the Garrison Institute. Sam is a regular contributor to Spirituality & Health. 


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