This year, we’re leaving willpower behind and embracing gratitude instead.
It’s January 10, which means it’s time for failed New Years’ Resolution stats:
- 38.5% of US adults set New Year’s resolutions every year
- 23% quit in the first week
- 36% make it past the first month
- Just 9% of people successfully stick it out all year long
Okay, but why is it so damned difficult just to do the right thing?
It’s not you, it’s your brain.
Willpower is often seen as an important factor in achieving our goals and making positive changes in our lives. Just like we’re supposed to know what to do with our money, we’re also expected to be able to just do the damn thing. If we fail, it’s because we didn’t try hard enough.
The truth is, relying on willpower alone is a recipe for burnout and disappointment. Gratitude, on the other hand, can be cultivated as a routine practice, so instead of denying yourself something you want, you learn to appreciate the benefits of the actions you’re taking.
Willpower is a finite resource that can be easily depleted, and when you run out, it’s almost impossible to find the motivation and determination to keep going. Gratitude, on the other hand, is a renewable resource that can be cultivated and nurtured over time.
Let’s dig into the science.
Back in the 1970s, Nobel-prize winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman and his research partner Amos Tversky began studying human decision making. They pioneered the idea that the brain relies on two distinct decision-making processes aptly titled, “System 1” and “System 2”
System 1: Fast, automatic, and unconscious; responsible for our snap judgments and quick decisions.
System 2: Slower, more deliberate, and more logical; used for tasks that require more effort and attention.
Willpower is often seen as a function of System 2, because it requires conscious effort and self-control. This means that it requires us to actively think about our actions and make deliberate choices, rather than relying on automatic or unconscious processes. Willpower requires us to use a lot of mental energy and focus, and this can be exhausting.
Practicing gratitude, on the other hand, does not necessarily require a lot of conscious effort or self-control. It simply involves making time to reflect on the things we are grateful for and focusing on the positive aspects of our lives.
Let’s look at an example:
I recently gave up sugar for health reasons. Initially, I really struggled with this because as it turns out, sugar is in EVERYTHING. For the first week, the cravings were a nightmare. I tried stuffing my face with fruit and berries, but sometimes, I just HAD to have a bite (or bar) of chocolate.
But these lapses were setting me back. So, I had to change the way I dealt with the cravings. The invasive fungus in my gut thrives on sugar and my intense cravings were actually a sign that it was dying off. Instead of trying to fight the cravings with willpower, I started to think of them as small victories in the battle to heal my body. I stocked up on gut-approved snacks and now, everytime I reach for one, I remind myself how grateful I am to have a body that is able to heal itself.
But, how does gratitude work?
According to Dr. David DeSteno, a psychology professor at Northeastern University, expressing gratitude can hack into System 1’s automated processing and increase self-control.
Expressing gratitude activates the brain’s reward system, which can help to regulate emotions and behaviors. When we feel grateful, our brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is associated with feelings of pleasure and reward. The more we practice gratitude, the better we feel, and the more automatic the practice of gratitude becomes. This dopamine release cycle may help increase self-control by strengthening our ability to regulate our emotions and behaviors.
DeSteno also found that expressing gratitude can improve our physical health, relationships, and overall well-being. By cultivating a sense of gratitude, we can not only improve our self-control, but also enhance our overall quality of life.
That being said, it is important to recognize that both willpower and gratitude can be important for achieving our goals and leading a fulfilling life. Willpower can help us to overcome challenges and make progress towards our goals, while gratitude can help us to build resilience and a positive outlook.
What’s key is finding the balance between the two and using them in ways that work best for you.
So, the next time you find yourself engaging in retail therapy after a long day, remember that your brain is just looking for a short-term, dopamine fix. Instead, try telling yourself that you’re grateful for what you already have – and if you still really want to buy something, try buying more index funds with your Aura account instead. #ThisIsNotAdvice.