Welcome to the world of craving.
Whether it’s the double espresso shots in the already jitter-inducing coffee, the incessant iPhone check or play, the carcinogenic cigarette, or a habitual way of treating others, we all understand willpower – or more specifically, the sad-sack lack of it.
Willpower is the ability to do what really matters, even when it’s difficult. It is the result of self-control which, according to Kelly McGonigal, the health psychologist who created “The Science of Willpower”, the most popular course in Stanford’s Continuing Studies program, is the protection of you by you.
Her 2012 book, “THE WILLPOWER INSTINCT” is based on the insights of students, and on the scientific findings presented in the course itself. But that title? Is the willpower of the prefrontal cortex or higher brain really ‘instinctive’ in the way the fight or flight impulses in the pre-historic amygdala or lowest part of our brain are instinctive? After all, it produces life-saving impulsive chemicals designed to actually hamper the ‘pause and plan’ higher brain.
Well… think about the last time you used real willpower. It wasn’t a mere abstraction between right and wrong; your body felt the challenge; it had a physical reaction. Your prefrontal cortex produced chemicals that countered the craving. So, yes; there’s scientific proof that the self-control instinct can be as powerful as its impulse instinct. It just needs honing.
The book is actionable: it gives the reader a step-by-step way of identifying goals, strengthening self-control, and making life-long changes. The reader is asked to look at why s/he loses self-control, and then to construct a goal-plan: I WILL (do things I normally put off); I WON’T (engage in negative activity); I WANT (something and will work toward it).
Ms McGonigal is a highly-engaging writer. She is also a very very funny one. Perhaps a different editor would have highlighted or brought the book’s gems to the forefront; nevertheless, the gems are there. Chapter 4’s: License to Sin, looks at the “fuzzy math of moral licensing”. (We do something ‘good’ [control ourselves successfully] which gives us permission to do something ‘bad’ [not control ourselves]. We reward ourselves … by failing. When we do that, we turn the whole goal-reaching process into one long unsuccessful test of virtue.
More important than intelligence, and a better predictor of school, business, and relationship success, willpower is the ability to regulate debilitating emotions and to stick to your goals. You couldn’t do better than to have Ms McGonigal’s book in your backpocket to keep you on the straight and narrow.
THE WILLPOWER INSTINCT was published in 2012 by Penquin Group Canada.
See Ms McGonigal’s interview on TV Ontario’s The Agenda: Part 1, and Part 2.