The Science of Willpower

Secrets for self-control without suffering

Find Your Courage and Compassion with One Question

Two new studies show the value of a simple writing exercise.

Two new studies caught my eye this week. They are from different research teams, and studying total different outcomes, but both used the same simple fifteen-minute psychological intervention.

In one study, the intervention reduced schadenfreude, or taking pleasure in another person's suffering. After the brief intervention, participants reported less schadenfreude in response to another person's failures. And while most people savor schadenfreude as positive emotion, it can be a major obstacle to our happiness. The more we enjoy other people's suffering, the harder it is to feel sympathetic joy (happiness for others), compassion for others, and even self-compassion.

In the second study, the intervention increased bravery. Participants became more willing to learn about their own medical risks, something many people resist because they are afraid to find out that they might be sick. This kind of openness to threatening information doesn't just save lives; it's the foundation for being able to try on new perspectives and learn from your mistakes.

Together, these studies suggest the one 15-minute task can increase both courage and compassion. So what was the intervention?

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Both studies used a "self-affirmation" writing exercise, in which participants wrote about a value that was especially important to them (instructions below). Other research shows that this writing exercise reduces stress, boosts self-control, and increases perseverance in the face of challenges. So if you're looking for one thing you can do to find your strength and your compassion, this exercise is worth the fifteen-minute investment.

Here are the instructions:

1. Make a list of your top 3 values. Values are principles, strengths, personal qualities, roles, or experiences that are most meaningful and important to you. Common examples include virtues (like honesty, patience, courage, or compassion), finding the beauty or humor in life, faith, connection to nature, service to community or family, health, lifelong learning, adventure, tradition, creativity, and so on.

2. When you need a self-affirmation boost, pick one of these values and write for five to fifteen minutes about why that value is important to you, and an example of how you live it. You could write about a past experience, a time in your life where you acted on your value, a challenge that you met with your value, or something you do every day to express this value. For example, if your value were generosity, you might write about a favorite memory when you were able to share something meaningful with a loved one, or a stranger; or about your favorite non-profit organization and why you donate your time and money to it.

Studies mentioned:
1. Howell JL & Shepperd JA (in press). Reducing information avoidance through affirmation. Psychological Science, (in press).

2. van Dijk WW, van Koningsbruggen GM, Ouwerkerk JW, & Wesseling YM (2011). Self-esteem, self-affirmation, and schadenfreude. Emotion, 11(6), 1445-1449.

Kelly McGonigal, PhD, is a psychologist at Stanford University and the author of the new book The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It (Penguin/Avery).

 

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is a health psychologist at Stanford University.

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