Why you need more than willpower to give up smoking for good

28 February 2018

Author of Emotional Success and world-leading psychologist David DeSteno shares why willpower isn’t the only psychological tool you need to give up smoking for good. National No Smoking Day is on 14th March 2018.

If you’re looking to kick the habit this No Smoking Day, let me give you a piece of advice: willpower won’t cut it. On average, we all fail one out of every five times we try to resist a temptation, like smoking, that will bring us pleasure in the moment but trouble down the line. And if we’re tired, busy, or stressed, our success rate is even worse. Not to despair, though. You do possess a psychological tool that’s much stronger than willpower. It’s just not one that you’re likely to think about when you’re trying to avoid reaching for the next cigarette.

That tool is an emotion, or, more specifically, a certain type of emotion. I like to call that type social emotions, as they’re feelings like gratitude and compassion that exist only in the context of relationships between people. These are the emotions that make us willing to sacrifice for others. They make us pay back our debts, as well as offer time, money, help, or even a shoulder to cry on to others in need. Whether you realize it or not, each of these acts requires self-control, as in doing them, you’re sacrificing some pleasures or gains in the moment to ensure that you’ll have them repaid in spades in the future. Think of it this way, if I lend you £10 and you don’t pay me back, you’re ahead. But, because of that lack of selfishness, I’ll likely not ever lend you money again, which means you’ve now lost all the gains over time that would have come your way from cooperating with me. But if you feel grateful for my aid, it will push you to pay it back. Same goes for compassion. It’s what makes you willing to help me in the first place, which should make it more likely that I’ll help you down the line.

What we’re now finding is that these emotions don’t only make people more willing to cooperate with other people, but also with their own future selves. For example, people who feel grateful suddenly become more patient. They’re more willing to invest money for the future rather than spend it in the moment, and to exercise rather than loaf on the couch. Same for compassion. For example, those who are feeling it become less likely to procrastinate and, yes, more likely to be successful in reducing their rate of smoking. Because these emotions focus the mind on what’s to be gained I the future, including the wellbeing of future you, they ease the path to pursuing your long-term goals in a less stressful way than does willpower. So take some time today to count your blessings. Doing so will help make sure you’ll have more to be proud of tomorrow.

Emotional Success

Emotional Success

In Emotional Success, pioneering psychologist David DeSteno uses cutting-edge research to show how positive emotions are far more powerful tools than willpower and self-denial to achieve your goals.

Emotional Success is published in hardback and ebook and is available now. 

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