Why Willpower Fails Me


This blog post was originally published in November of 2018.  I have continued to learn about motivating behavior change and would even consider myself an expert at this point (4 years later).  Using social emotions to motivate change is still my strongest and most successful strategy so I am sharing this again for those of you who missed it the first time!  What are your favorite strategies to motivate behavior change?  I would love to hear them.

I have been thinking and reading a lot about what motivates lasting behavioral change.  My pursuit is not entirely altruistic.  Yes, I would love to be able to educate and encourage others, but this is also about me.  I have stopped drinking Diet Dr. Pepper ("for good, this time") more times than I can count.  I have gained and lost the same thirty pounds about every two years in my adult life.  I think about all the things in my life that I have had enough willpower to accomplish (for example, getting a graduate degree, training and completing a sprint triathlon and half marathon) and I can't figure out why other things elude me.

Lisa with a cup of tea in 2018

Last week I stumbled upon a video called "Emotional Intelligence for Success" where a psychologist, David DeSteno, was talking about his research on why reason and perseverance aren't enough to ensure behavior change.  (Insert picture of my mind being blown.)  I spent the rest of the week reading everything I could get my hands on about his research and all of the other research that support his assertions.

Simply put, the social emotions of gratitude, compassion, and pride have the evolutionary function of encouraging us to exert self-control and patience. Click To Tweet  For our ancestors to survive they had to cooperate with each other.  Cooperation requires the self-control of sometimes choosing to delay the fulfillment of your needs for the good of others.  Turns out, when we are feeling these social emotions we aren't willing just to sacrifice for others, we are more motivated to sacrifice for our future selves.  In other words, when I am feeling gratitude (for anything), I am more willing to put down that Diet Dr. Pepper.

Lisa in 2022

There is a lot of research that supports this.  Gratitude increases self-control.  Compassion encourages perseverance.  Pride (having a skill that others admire and value) makes you want to work hard to continue being valuable to others.

There are some really practical and easy ways you can focus on these three emotions.  By keeping a gratitude journal, you get in the habit of appreciating the small things in life (someone holding the door for you, a coworker offering to help you clean up after a meeting).  Mindfulness meditation for 10 minutes a day has been proven to increase compassion.  You can also increase your compassion by practicing "perspective taking".   Perspective taking is where you try to put yourself in someone else's shoes and see a situation from their point of view.  Try to do this at least once a day.  Pride can be cultivated by acknowledging your steps towards a goal, not just celebrating when the goal is achieved.

As I look back on my successes I realize that each of them was motivated by these social emotions.  Completing my graduate degree was motivated by wanting to improve the effectiveness of the work I was doing with victims of family violence (compassion).  I got up at the crack of dawn to drive from Winston-Salem to Chapel Hill for classes so that my friend, who had been so supportive to me, didn't have to drive alone (gratitude).  I loved the feeling I got when I was able to contribute in a meaningful way to class discussions (pride).  I trained for the races to support my sister who was doing it to mark her recovery from a head injury (compassion and gratitude).  The more I trained the prouder I became of my efforts and my achievement (I started running at 40).

I've recently started keeping a gratitude journal again.  I am feeling proud of the small successes each time I choose tea over soda.  I am imaging the health of my future self-improved as I participate in the SAS sponsored sugar challenge this week.  Let's see if focusing on these emotions can help me change what I desire in the first place rather than trying to fight a desire.  I will let you know.


About Author

Lisa Allred

Work Life Program Manager

Lisa Allred comes to SAS with a long history of working with families throughout the lifespan. After receiving her undergraduate degree at Wake Forest Universtity and her Masters in Social Work from UNC-CH, her career began as a child therapist focusing on parenting, anxiety and trauma. She then moved into college counseling where she emphasized student wellness and balance.


  1. glodie motanga on

    Ms. Lisa, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with the world!
    My favorite part is "Gratitude increases self-control. Compassion encourages perseverance. Pride (having a skill that others admire and value) makes you want to work hard to continue being valuable to others." You did an amazing job explaining how you apply these 3 in your life. I must confess that I have been applying these three without recognizing them. I like the idea of keeping these in the journal. Currently, I am doing research on a better approach for meditation because I have no idea to how to begin.

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