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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?
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. Then by about mid-February it all starts to peter out. And you talk 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. Kind of talk about some of your latest research on the topic.
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, people out in the community, who would say things like, “I have this really big goal, or a I know I need to change this thing, but I don’t have the willpower to do it.” And that really was 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 or distraction and motivation, if that was utterly human and it didn’t say something about what was uniquely wrong or unique 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 like a muscle. When you exert your muscles, they become stronger and more durable and they develop greater stamina. Is that a good analogy for willpower?
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 all fatigue that strength. But that as we challenge ourselves more and more, we develop a stronger willpower reserve.
Jason Hartman: Okay, 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 one, two and three, if you will?
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 and control themselves, think of themselves kind of like willpower athletes who need to be well rested and well fueled. There’s a real biology to willpower that says 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 in the body shifts into this state of being impulsive, being distracted, being stressed out, and so before I even have people try and make these changes in their lives I ask them to commit an act of self-care. One that will support the energy of their brain and body. It could be prioritizing sleep a little more, it could be exercise or movement. It doesn’t have to be a killer workout – any sort 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. Okay, so is willpower the same thing as mental toughness, the same thing as tenacity, or are there some distinctions here that we should make?
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. So we need some mental toughness to do that, to deal with setbacks, to find the energy 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. Okay, so is willpower the same thing as mental toughness, the same thing as tenacity, or are there some distinctions here that we should make?
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. So we need some mental toughness to do that, to deal with setbacks, to find the energy to do things that are difficult. 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 actually recognize and then control impulses that move you away from your goals. When you’re facing a temptation, 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 values and goals are. It’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.
Kelly McGonigal: 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 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. Where self-care and self-compassion actually restores our willpower.
Jason Hartman: You know, 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 fetes. 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.
Kelly McGonigal: Definitely. I think it’s actually one of the reasons 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, actually training ourselves, whether through exercise or other challenges, to actually stick with something despite discomfort or despite anxiety. that’s actually training us to meet any challenge with more willpower.
Jason Hartman: Yeah. Amazing. Okay, so training willpower. That’s one area, and I may want to come back and ask you some more questions about that. But just to make sure we cover the topic, let’s talk about stress for a moment. I have heard a concept of Eustress, which is like the good stress I believe and then there’s the bad stress that everybody talks about and knows about. Distinguish the whole stress phenomenon for us if you would.
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 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 that 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 any time we recognize that we are up against a challenge, and too often I think in our society, we think of stress as being a fundamentally bad thing because often the situations that 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 at work, 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: Okay, so in your TED Talk you talked about that, that people believed, this is the old psychosomatic medicine concept that still not enough people are aware of, but it sounds like the belief that stress is bad makes it much worse, right? To me, this was actually some pretty scary news.
Kelly McGonigal: Because as a health psychologist, I was trained with 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. And then a few years ago I came across the first study showing that stress only seems to increase the risk of death among people that 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 to people who don’t have a lot of stress in their lives.
And since that first 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 that 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: So reframing it, how do we reframe it? Give us some examples of what we can do to think about it properly and in the proper context.
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 that shows 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, 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 reframe, and there are other ways to sort of see the upside of stress response that makes it less of something that we might want to avoid or resist.
Jason Hartman: That reminds me a little bit of the times in my life, and I’ve certainly heard stories about other people experiencing this, when someone wants to do something and then a person who is important or authoritative in their life will say you can’t do that, and they’ll eventually overcome all odds just 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?
Kelly McGonigal: Yes. In some ways, stress wll 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 just 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 interesting. Well, what else can we learn from stress, and I guess kind of that thin I mentioned of that stress and the challenge of being told you can’t do it is kind of a willpower. Maybe that’s one area where they cross over and the two merge together. But do the two interrelated, the topic of willpower and stress?
Kelly McGonigal: Definitely. So one of the things that seems to be the case is stress tension goes into a state of focusing on the short term rather than the long term. And stress can then make us more likely to give into 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, that make us feel unhelpfully stressed out, and that lead us to make bad choices.
Another way to sort of 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, 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 that 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: Very interesting. So stress can make us more of a social animal and increase sense of community, right?
Kelly McGonigal: It can. Especially when we listen to it.
Jason Hartman: Very good. What else, as a health psychologist, what else do you teach students about this topic? It’s so interesting, 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 more of a hard science rather than a 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.
Kelly McGonigal: Yeah, it’s soft in the sense that it’s incredibly complex. I wish that we could do lab experience that allow us to say “we’ve proven this” and it’s all nice and neat. Actually one of the psychological things that really plays a role in willpower has to do with how we think about our future self. And a lot of the choices that we make that lead to negative health consequences come from the place of feeling like your future self is a stranger, that we don’t feel that motivated to take care of our future self. We feel like we’re throwing away our resources and our pleasure and our time on some old person who’s somehow not really us.
And a lot of the most interesting technological interventions now are trying to help people feel connected to and caring toward 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. And so that’s something that we spend some time with in the class and in the book, thinking about ways to feel connected to your future self so you are willing to invest.
Jason Hartman: If people were connected to their future self, they’d start eating right, they’d start exercising, and god, they’d stop smoking. Smoking has just got to be the worst thing anybody can possibly do. There’s just no benefit whatsoever. Everything about it is negative. You can rationalize that drinking has some benefits, but smoking, there’s just nothing there.
Kelly McGonigal: And one thing that’s important to recognize with all those behaviors is they’re often an attempt to escape from suffering in the present moment. 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 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 spend 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: Certainly if they couldn’t access it, 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 will work out.
Kelly McGonigal: But in that moment it often feels like it, or it feels like dying would be a preference to the suffering or the pain that is present. And I actually want to point out, for people that are dealing with behaviors like addiction or smoking, that often they have more willpower than people that 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 attempts to overcome addiction have tremendous willpower.
Jason Hartman: Oh and listen, I completely agree. Nicotine has got to 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 got to be just an incredibly powerful chemical to overcome all of that rational thought. 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 one other little quick topic area, 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 always destructive. I don’t know, but it seems like that’s sort of a, and it depends the way we do it and we all have our different ways, but it’s kind of a pressure release valve almost. And is it okay? Or is it just a bad thing all around?
Kelly McGonigal: I think it’s absolutely okay. There’s I guess you could call, 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, 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 may be keeping us worrying, the physical pressures that we experience, work that we 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. But I really 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 just define the types of escapism. So certainly, being engaged in physical activity would be considered a good escapism. Just the fact that we’re moving, it changes our equilibrium, it changes our state, I don’t think that anyone would argue that that’s a good form of escapism. But what about alcohol for example?
Kelly McGonigal: That is probably not helpful. And I think the way that you can probably distinguish between the two is how the episode ends. Alcohol in theory, I mean having 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? I think some activities are more likely than others to create that cycle of, well it seems like its good but I never can actually get enough of it. Spending, sometimes video games, food, drinks, these are things that often they will 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 of it and ready to reengage with some other aspect of our lives.
Jason Hartman: That’s a key phrase, I think you said. We feel nicely resolved after it. So, yeah very good distinction. That’s great. Well, Kelly give out your website if you would. Tell people where they can find out about you.
Kelly McGonigal: You can find me on the web, on Twitter and on Facebook by my name, Kelly Mcgonigal, 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?
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 that we have experienced, that whatever they are they are not 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, it’s 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. Kelly Mcgonigal, thank you so much for joining us today.
Kelly McGonigal: You’re welcome.
Narrator: This show is produced by the Hartman Media Company, all rights reserved. For distribution or publication rights, and media interviews, please visit www.HartmanMedia.com or email [email protected] Nothing on this show should be considered personal or professional advice. Please consult an appropriate tax, legal, real estate or business professional for individualized advice. Opinions of guests are their own, and the host is acting on behalf of Platinum Properties Investor Network, Inc. exclusively.
Transcribed by Ralph
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