JS 60: Mastering Self Control with Dr. Kelley McGonigal of Stanford University and Author of ‘The Willpower Instinct’

January 10th, 2014 by Jason | Comments Off on JS 60: Mastering Self Control with Dr. Kelley McGonigal of Stanford University and Author of ‘The Willpower Instinct’

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Dr. Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist at Stanford University and author of, “THE WILLPOWER INSTINCT: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It.” Dr. McGonigal teaches one of the most popular courses at Stanford University called, “The Science of Willpower.” She has helped hundreds of students achieve their goals through the idea of willpower. She believes stress should be welcomed in people’s lives, thus causing greater willpower. Dr. McGonigal breaks down the science behind why we give in to temptation and how we can find the strength to resist.

Find out more about Dr. Kelly McGonigal at KellyMcGonigal.com.

Kelly McGonigal, PhD, is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, and a leading expert in the new field of “science-help.” She is passionate about translating cutting-edge research from psychology, neuroscience, and medicine into practical strategies for health, happiness, and personal success. Her most recent book, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It (Penguin 2012), explores the latest research on motivation, temptation, and procrastination, as well as what it takes to transform habits, persevere at challenges, and make a successful change.

Her audio series The Neuroscience of Change (Sounds True 2012) weaves the newest findings of science with Eastern contemplative wisdom to give listeners a revolutionary process for personal transformation. She is also the author of Yoga for Pain Relief: Simple Practices to Calm Your Mind and Heal Your Pain (New Harbinger, 2009), which translates recent advances in neuroscience and medicine into mind-body strategies for relieving chronic pain, stress, depression, and anxiety.

She teaches for a wide range of programs at Stanford University, including the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, the Graduate School of Business, and the School of Medicine’s Health Improvement Program. She has received a number of teaching awards for her undergraduate psychology courses, including Stanford University’s highest teaching honor, the Walter J. Gores award.

Her popular public courses through Stanford’s Continuing Studies program—including the Science of Willpower and the Science of Compassion—demonstrate the applications of psychological science to personal health and happiness, as well as organizational success and social change. Through a wide range of conferences, workshops, university-affiliated programs, and consulting, Dr. McGonigal also provides continuing education and training to executives, teachers, healthcare providers, and other professionals.

Her psychology research (on compassion, mindfulness, and emotion regulation) has been published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Motivation and Emotion, The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, and The Journal of Happiness Studies. From 2005-2012, Dr. McGonigal served as the Editor in Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, a peer-reviewed journal of mind-body research, healthcare policy, and clinical practice. A long-time practitioner of yoga and meditation, Dr. McGonigal is a founding member of the Yoga Service Council and serves on the advisory boards of several non-profit organizations bringing yoga and meditation to underserved and at-risk populations, including Yoga Bear (providing yoga in hospitals nationwide and to cancer survivors and their caregivers) and The Art of Yoga Project (brining yoga into juvenile detention facilities in the San Francisco Bay Area).

Dr. McGonigal’s work has been covered widely by the media, including the CBS Evening News, U.S. News and World Report, CNN.com, O! The Oprah Magazine, Time magazine, USA Today, and the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology. She is also a frequent source of expert advice and commentary for media outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, MSNBC.com, Web MD, Time, Fitness, Women’s Health, and more. In 2010, Forbes named her one of the 20 most inspiring women to follow on Twitter. In 2012, she teamed up with the Oprah Winfrey Network and Superbetter Labs to create an online game that would spread the benefits of gratitude to millions of people worldwide.

Dr. McGonigal received her PhD in psychology from Stanford University, with a concentration in humanistic medicine. She received a B.A. in Psychology and a B.S. in Mass Communication from Boston University. She is also passionate about the benefits of physical exercise and has been certified as a group fitness instructor since 2000. In her free time, she continues to teach group fitness classes – because sometimes moving, breathing, and sweating is the best thing you can do to create health, joy, and resilience.

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JASON HARTMAN: It’s my pleasure to welcome Dr. Kelly McGonigal to the show. She is a health psychologist at Stanford and the author of The Willpower Instinct. What could be a more appropriate topic for the New Year? Kelly, welcome. How are you?

DR. KELLY MCGONIGAL: I’m doing great, how are you?

JASON HARTMAN: Well, good. So two really important topics, actually. Willpower, which of course a lot of people in the New Year every year, the gym memberships increase, and the health clubs are crowded, and the diets are sold, and the goals are set. And then by about mid-February, it all starts to kind of peter out. And you talked about two areas of great interest to me: willpower, of course, but also, stress. And whether it’s good or bad. Let’s talk about willpower first, if we can, and kind of talk about some of your latest research on the topic.

DR. KELLY MCGONIGAL: So the book is based on a class I teach called The Science of Willpower that I started teaching because I got really frustrated by the fact that I would talk to people, undergraduates at Stanford and people in the community, who would say things like, I have this really big goal, and I know I need to change this thing, but I don’t have the willpower to do it. And that was really at odds with what I knew about research on self-control and change, which says that willpower is not a trait that people lack, it’s more like a strength that can be trained. And I decided that it was really important to offer a class specifically about the science of willpower, to help empower people to realize that change was possible, and the fact that they were struggling with things like temptation, distraction, and motivation—that that was utterly human, and it didn’t say something about what was uniquely wrong or weak about them. And I feel like understanding the science of willpower actually gives us a tremendous amount of self-compassion. For why change is hard, and why we may give in again and again to bad habits, while also giving us some really helpful strategies for making changes.

JASON HARTMAN: So it sounds like you’re saying then that willpower is, it’s just like a muscle. When you exert your muscles, they become stronger and more durable, and they develop greater stamina. Is willpower—is that a good analogy for willpower?

DR. KELLY MCGONIGAL: It’s a great analogy. It also explains why when we’re making a change or moving towards a goal, we sometimes feel willpower-exhausted. That we can also fatigue that strength. But as we challenge ourselves more and more, we develop a stronger willpower reserve.

JASON HARTMAN: So give us an example. If someone came to you, and you were their personal trainer for willpower, what would be the training program? How do we do this? What’s step 1, 2, and 3 if you will?

DR. KELLY MCGONIGAL: Well, the first thing I actually encourage people to do, in the class and in the book, is rather than try to change something or try to control themselves, to think of themselves kind of as willpower athletes who need to be well rested and well fueled. There’s a real biology to willpower, which says that in order to be the best version of ourselves, we actually need to have a brain that is well rested, and a body that is well energized. When we’re sleep deprived, or when our blood sugar is low, the brain and the body shift into this state of being impulsive, being distracted, being stressed out. So before I even have people try to make big changes in their lives, I ask them to commit to an act of self-care; one that will support the energy of their brain and body. It could be prioritizing sleep a little bit more. It could be exercise or movement, and not necessarily a killer workout, but any kind of physical activity actually fuels the energy of the body. It could be something like meditation, which really improves how the brain uses energy, and how the body deals with stress. And, to do all of that before you get started in trying to quit smoking or start a diet.

JASON HARTMAN: Fantastic. Is willpower the same thing as mental toughness? Is it the same thing as tenacity? Or are there some distinctions here that we should make?

DR. KELLY MCGONIGAL: I think willpower is a pretty big category, and mental toughness is a strength that supports it. I define willpower as the ability to make choices that reflect your highest goals and values, even when it’s difficult, and even when some part of you doesn’t want to. And so we need some mental toughness to do that, to deal with setbacks, to find the energy to do things that are difficult, and I actually call that I-will-power, the ability to not give up, the ability to do things, to make progress towards your goals even when you’re tired, to really prioritize what matters, instead of only dealing with what feels urgent. But we also need something called I-won’t-power, which is the ability to recognize and actually control impulses that move you away from your goals, when you’re facing a temptation, or when you’re about to say something that might hurt someone’s feelings—to be able to recognize that before you do it, and actually hold yourself back. And we also need a different kind of strength that I call I-want-power, and that’s the ability to actually know what your goals and values are. That’s a tremendous strength that most people don’t invest a lot of time in: to every day think about what matters to me most. Not what feels urgent, not what’s worrying me and stressing me out, but who do I want to be, and what do I want to make my choices on the basis of? And that’s also a strength that we can train.

JASON HARTMAN: I like those sort of little phrases you have. I-will-power, I-won’t-power, I-want-power…do you have any more of those? Those are great.

DR. KELLY MCGONIGAL: I mean, it’s really helpful to think in terms of your challenges like that. We’ve already talked about self-care as being the foundation for self-control. And I like that phrase, because it points to a whole number of things that the science of willpower tells us that goes against many people’s intuitions, and one of them is the intuition most people have, which is that self criticism is the foundation for self control. And the science suggests that self criticism—guilt and shame—actually deplete our willpower even more than sleep deprivation would, whereas self care and self compassion actually restores our willpower.

JASON HARTMAN: On that self care topic, when you were talking about that a few minutes ago, I thought of people that are marathon runners, and do these crazy long distance incredible endurance athletic feats. But, isn’t that an example of incredible willpower at a time when you’re beating the heck out of your body, and most people would give up? I know I certainly would one third of the way through an iron man, if not much sooner.

DR. KELLY MCGONIGAL: It definitely, I think it’s actually one of the reasons why doing something like that is so attractive to many people. Because you recognize that you are training these three different strengths we need. One of the best predictors of whether or not someone can finish a marathon or any sort of event like that is their ability to tolerate the stress, the physical symptoms of discomfort, to override fatigue, and that turns out to be one of the best predictors of all sorts of things, like whether you are able to recover from an addiction. And in some ways, training ourselves, whether through exercises or other challenges, to actually stick with something despite discomfort, or despite anxiety, is actually training us to meet any challenge with more willpower.

JASON HARTMAN: Amazing. So, training willpower, that’s one area. And I may want to come back and ask you more questions about that. But just to make sure we cover the topic, let’s talk about stress for a moment. I have heard the concept of eustress, which I believe is e u stress, probably, which is the good stress, I believe, and then there is obviously the bad stress that everybody talks about and knows about. Distinguish the whole stress phenomenon for us, if you would.

DR. KELLY MCGONIGAL: Well, when I talk about stress, I’m mostly talking about reaction of the body, which doesn’t distinguish too much between eustress or distress. It’s a reaction of the mind and the body that is designed to help you focus on what is important. It gives you energy to take action, and it also tends to motivate us to try to connect with others who might be able to support us, or who are important in our community and relationships that matter to us. And, we have this physical stress response anytime we recognize that we’re up against a challenge. And too often in our society we think of stress as being this fundamentally bad thing, because often the situations to trigger that response are ones we’d really rather avoid. Maybe we don’t want to have a conflict with someone. We don’t want to feel pressure, or we don’t want to get bad news. But I’ve been really fascinated with the idea that you can not necessarily want the situations that trigger stress, but really appreciate the mind-body response of stress as something that can help you reach your goals if you have the right mindset about it.

JASON HARTMAN: Ok, so. In your TED talk, you talked about that people believed—I mean, this is the old psychosomatic medicine concept that still not enough people are aware of. But it sounds like to believe that stress is bad, makes it much worse, right?

DR. KELLY MCGONIGAL: Yeah, actually, to me this is some pretty scary news, because as a health psychologist, I was trained that stress is bad, stress makes you sick, stress will kill you. And I spent a lot of time telling people that in my classes. And basically making people scared of stress. Then a few years ago I came across the first study showing that stress only seems to increase the risk of death among people who believe that stress is bad for you. Whereas people who experience a lot of stress but don’t believe that stress is harmful, have the lowest rate of mortality of anyone, even compared with people who don’t have a lot of stress in their lives. And since that study came out, there have been a number of studies by different researchers, different labs, different populations, showing the same effect. And it made me really rethink the way I was talking about stress. And it motivated me to find a way of reframing stress that would avoid possibly the more toxic effects of stress.

JASON HARTMAN: Ok, so reframing it. How do we reframe it? Give us some examples of what we can do to think about it properly, in the proper context.

DR. KELLY MCGONIGAL: One really exciting way to reframe stress is to think of the physical stress response as being something that gives you access to energy and courage. There’s research that’s come out of Harvard showing that when people view their own anxiety and stress response—their pounding heart, maybe they’re breathing faster—if they view that as their brain and body trying to give them energy, it actually allows them to perform better under pressure. It reduces the felt experience of anxiety, and it even makes the stress response healthier. You can have the exact same stressful experience with the exact same physical symptoms of stress, but when you appreciate that it’s your brain and body trying to give you energy, it subtly shifts the physiology of stress towards a state that is actually cardiovascularly very healthy, and not likely to increase your risk of illness or cardiovascular disease. So that’s an easy reframing. There are other ways to sort of see the up side of stress response that makes it less of something that we might want to avoid or resist.

JASON HARTMAN: You know, that reminds me a little bit of the times in my life, and I’ve certainly heard stories about other people experiencing this one, you know when someone wants to do something, and then a person that is important or authoritative in their life will say, you can’t do that, and they’ll actually overcome all odds to make it happen, just to kind of prove the other person wrong, or prove to themselves that they can do it. Is any of that in there?

DR. KELLY MCGONIGAL: Yes. You know, in some ways, stress will give you access to your own resources, including your strength and your motivation, and so although I don’t recommend it as a parenting strategy—to tell people they can’t do something—when you yourself get that message, even to understanding okay, this is an opportunity, and it feels bad when someone tells me that—well, this feeling bad is actually giving me access to my motivation, and to recognize that that can also be a source of strength.

JASON HARTMAN: So, it gives you access to your own resources, I really like the way you put that. Very very interesting. Well, what else can we learn from stress? I guess, that thing I mentioned of the stress and the challenge of being told you can’t do it is kind of a willpower…maybe that’s where they, an area where they cross over and the two merge together, but do the two interrelate in a lot of ways, the topic of willpower and stress?

DR. KELLY MCGONIGAL: Definitely, and so, one of the things that seems to be the case is stress can shift us into a state of focusing on the short term rather than the long term, and stress can then make us more likely say to give in to temptation or to procrastinate. And in that case, I think the solution for the stress and the solution for the willpower challenge is the same. And that is to seek social support and connection. That seems to be the antidote to many of the challenges that make us feel isolated, make us feel sort of unhelpfully stressed out, and that lead us to make bad choices. So, another way to reframe the stress response is to understand that in many cases, your body will try to motivate you to seek out connection when you’re stressed out, and if we give ourselves permission to listen to that signal, that maybe stress makes you feel a little bit lonely, or stress makes you crave comfort…that’s actually your body and brain trying to encourage you to go out and be around people who care about you. And that also seems to be an incredible source of willpower, the feeling of being connected actually encourages us to make better choices that are consistent with our goals and values.

JASON HARTMAN: Hmm, very interesting. So, stress can make us more of a social animal and increase our sense of community, right?

DR. KELLY MCGONIGAL: Mhmm, it can. Especially when we listen to it.

JASON HARTMAN: Okay, very good. Well, what else do you, as a health psychologist, what else do you teach students about this topic? It’s so interesting that I…I think a lot of the world of health doesn’t deal enough with psychology; it’s more about medicine and things that are considered maybe more of a hard science than the soft science of psychology. You may not like that I called psychology a soft science, but I think to a lot of people they view it that way.

DR. KELLY MCGONIGAL: Yeah, sure. It’s soft in the sense that it’s incredibly complex. I wish we could do lab experiments that allow us to say, we’ve proven this and it’s all nice and neat. I would say one of the psychological things that really plays a role in willpower has to do with how we think of our future self, and a lot of choices we make that lead to negative health consequences come from a place of feeling like your future self is a stranger. That we don’t feel that motivated to take care of our future self, because it feels like we’re throwing away our pleasure, or resources and time, on some old person who’s somehow not really us. And a lot of the most interesting psychological interventions now are trying to help people feel connected to and caring towards their future self, to understand that you know what, when that day comes, it’s going to be you. And that experience is going to be just as real and vivid as the experience you’re having now, and you really are going to be the recipient of the choices you make today. So that’s something we really spend time on in the class and in the book, thinking about ways of feeling connected to your future self so you’re willing to invest.

JASON HARTMAN: I mean that would…if people were connected to their future self, they’d start eating right, they’d start exercising, and God, they’d stop smoking, I mean, smoking has just gotta be the worst thing anybody can possibly do. There’s just no benefit whatsoever. And everything about it is negative. You can rationalize that drinking, it has some benefits, but smoking just…there’s just nothing. There’s just nothing there.

DR. KELLY MCGONIGAL: And one thing that’s important to recognize with all of these behaviors is that they’re often an attempt to escape from suffering in the present moment. I mean, it’s not like people are weak or stupid. In some cases they’re making a rational choice that says, the pain right now is so bad, or the stress, or the craving right now is so bad, that giving in seems like the rational thing to do, because I don’t think I can stand this experience I’m having. And one of the other psychological strengths that we spent some time cultivating, is trust that you can handle difficult sensations and emotions and experiences. And that’s a strength and a trust that needs to be developed over time. So that people can actually make choices to delay the cigarette, or to not take that drink.

JASON HARTMAN: Yeah, certainly if they couldn’t access—if it was completely unavailable in the environment, it’s not like they would die. They would somehow find a way to muddle through, and think things would work out—

DR. KELLY MCGONIGAL: But at that moment it often feels like it, or like dying would be a preference to the suffering or the pain that is present. And you know, I actually want to point out that for people who are dealing with behaviors like addiction or smoking, that often they have more willpower than people who have never struggled with addiction. And we can be very quick to judge, because it looks like a weakness, but man, people who have made any attempt to overcome addiction have tremendous willpower.

JASON HARTMAN: And listen, I completely agree, you know. Nicotine has gotta be such an incredibly addictive substance, because you look at the warning labels, you go to other countries and you see the warning labels that are actually photographs, and they’re larger than they are in America. It’s not like these people don’t know. It’s gotta be just an incredibly powerful chemical to overcome all of that rational thought. I mean, I’m not judging in the sense that saying these people are dumb or unaware. They know. And it just shows you that it’s an incredibly powerful substance. It’s amazing. That actually leads me to, you may be, one other little quick topic here, and I know we’re limited on time here, but escapism. I have long believed, Kelly, that some degree of escapism is actually okay. In fact, and you may totally disagree with me on this, I believe that Maslow’s hierarchy should have even included escapism as a concept. Some degree of escapism, as long as it’s not destructive. And maybe you’ll say it’s all destructive, I don’t know. But it seems like that sort of, and it depends the way we do it, we all have our different ways. But it’s kind of a pressure release valve almost. Is it okay, or is it just a bad thing all around?

DR. KELLY MCGONIGAL: I think it’s absolutely okay. There’s an issue of shall we call it wholesome escapism? There are a lot of activities that give us the experience of being completely immersed in an activity. It could be a great narrative TV series that you watch, maybe a few episodes of in one sitting. It could be a great book. Could be a hobby. It could be being outdoors. Sports, exercise. There are a lot of activities where what we’re actually escaping is things like the not-so-helpful habits of the mind that are maybe keeping us worrying. The physical pressures that we experience, or work that we’ve left and really want to be able to leave behind. Escapism is only a problem when it starts to take over areas of your life where you really should be spending time on something else. I think people should give themselves permission to do the things that restore them, and it really is not time wasted.

JASON HARTMAN: Okay, so let’s just, before you go, let’s define the types of escapism. So, certainly being engaged in physical activity would be considered a good escapism. I mean, just the fact that we’re moving, it changes our equilibrium, it changes our state. I don’t think anyone would argue that that’s a good form of escapism. But what about alcohol, for example?

DR. KELLY MCGONIGAL: That is probably not helpful. And I think that the way you can probably distinguish between the two is, how the episode ends. I mean, alcohol—in theory a glass of wine could be a positive way to restore yourself. But the things that are not helpful escapisms are the things where they never really end with satisfaction. When they start to look more like an addiction. Is it the case that you can play a video game for 20 minutes and feel great? Or do you not stop until you pass out? And I think some activities are more likely than others to create that cycle of, well it seems like it’s good, but I can never actually get enough of it. Spending, sometimes video games, food, drink, these are things where often they will continue to trigger the need to engage with them, rather than give us a natural sense of completion. Very few people are going to exercise themselves to death because they just can’t stop. The wholesome escapism, we tend to feel nicely resolved at the end, and ready to reengage with some other aspects of our live.

JASON HARTMAN: That’s a key phrase that I think you said, we feel nicely resolved after it. So, yeah. Very good. Very good distinction. That’s great. Well, Kelly, give out your website if you would, tell people where they can find out about you.

DR. KELLY MCGONIGAL: You can find me on the Web, on Twitter, and on Facebook by my name, Kelly McGonigal. www.KellyMcGonigal.com. And The Willpower Instinct, the book, is available everywhere.

JASON HARTMAN: Fantastic. Any closing thoughts that you’d like to leave us with?

DR. KELLY MCGONIGAL: I would say that the number one thing that I hope people experience from the book and from the class is to understand that the things that we tend to judge ourselves on, that we may believe that we are weak or inadequate because of the struggles we’ve experienced, but whatever they are, they aren’t unique. To understand the common humanity of this stuff. And it may be one thing for you and something else for me, but the way we experience challenges around willpower is fundamentally the same, and it’s our ability to kind of accept that, that often gives us the strength to change.

JASON HARTMAN: Fantastic, very good points. Dr. Kelly McGonigal, thank you so much for joining us today.

DR. KELLY MCGONIGAL: You’re welcome!

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