August 6, 2019
The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. Book Report
This book studies self control in depth and shows the brain functioning behind it. It also provides readers with ways to get more self control within themselves. The book explains how self control is controlled by our brain and how certain circumstances such as being tired can greatly impact its functioning. The author, Kelly McGonigal, is a professor at Stanford University and she taught a class called “The Science of Willpower” that became a very popular and diverse class at the University. The book is set up in a way that almost resembles taking the class and she encourages that a chapter be read and applied to your life each week. The added bonus of the book beyond the class is that she features many examples of the students in her class and their failures and successes of applying the teachings of the class to their lives.
The book is a beneficial read for anyone because as it becomes clear from reading it, you are not human if you do not struggle with self control. We are faced with many choices every day and our brain is constantly fighting or giving into our impulses. She explains that we have three powers in our brain. “I Will, I Won’t, and I Want” and we encounter all of these many times a day. Along with learning a scientific explanation of willpower and getting real life examples of life application of the teachings, there are many great exercises as you go through the book. Things like breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, and encouraged new ways of thinking are supplied to readers in each chapter to help them better their life by gaining more willpower/self control.
The part of the book that I enjoyed the most was chapter two, “The Willpower Instinct: Your Body Was Born to Resist Cheesecake”. The reason that I liked this chapter the most is because it applies to my life the most. I feel like I am not the best at handling stress in my life and trying to juggle school, work, volunteering, and a social life while getting enough sleep every night is not the easiest. The book notes that “Anxiety, anger, depression, and loneliness are all associated with lower heart rate variability and less self-control.” (McGonigal 39). The author goes on to explain how when you are experiencing increased levels of stress your self control abilities suffer. This opened my eyes to my own life because I can recall that in the moments I am most stressed and anxious, my decision making is impaired and I am more likely to lash out at others or do things like eat unhealthy. McGonigal goes on saying, “Anything else that you can do to reduce stress and take care of your health- exercise, get a good night’s sleep, eat better, spend quality time with your friends and family, participate in a religious or spiritual practice- will improve your body’s willpower.” (McGonigal 39) I think this is something that almost all college students need to be more conscious of for themselves. This ties into the lecture slides on ‘Self Control, specifically Howard Rachlin’s approach to self control, soft commitment. Soft commitment is a way to pattern behavior over time in a way that benefits self control. It is a development of valuable patterns that bridge over individual temptations. Replacing negative addictions like drug abuse or overeating with positive addictions such as being social or exercising. This part of the lecture from class very much aligns with the teachings in this book. A final point that I appreciated in this chapter was also beneficial to college students and it talked about sleep. McGonigal noted how being sleep deprived makes you more susceptible to stress, cravings, and temptation. As well as it makes it more difficult to control emotions and focus. The best part of this chapter and the book as a whole? The techniques provided to help these things in reader’s lives. They are: A breathing technique where you slow your breath to 4-6 breaths per minute. The 5-minute green willpower fill up- going outside for a brief time to reduce stress and improve your mood. A relaxation technique where you lie down and use a physiological relaxation response. And the encouragement to recharge yourself with a nap or one good night’s sleep.
Relation to the Course
A study mentioned in this chapter was done by Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng who tried a new treatment for self control. Six men and eighteen women, ranging in age from eighteen to fifty years old were used. After two months of the treatment they had attention improvements, they reduced their smoking, drinking, and caffeine intake, spent less time eating junk food and more time eating healthy food, spent less time watching television and more time studying, had less impulse purchases, procrastinated less, and felt more in control of their emotions. The treatment? Exercise. This study really showed the remarkable effects of exercise on everything including self control. This ties in greatly to class, specifically on the ‘drugs’ lecture slides. We learned in class that positive reinforcers from exercise are improved physical and mental health, and goal achievement. A negative reinforcer from exercise is a relief from stress and tension. And an exercise high is a positive reinforcer that is characterized by euphoria and mood improvement. Something I found very interesting in this part of the class is that exercise can actually become addicting. Exercise tolerance is similar to drug tolerance which is a decline in euphoria from exercise that is the result of physical conditioning. Which means the person will have to exercise more often to get the same level of positive feelings. This is crazy to realize but it makes sense after reading in the book how beneficial exercise can be to your mind and life- it is understandable that it can become addicting.
Every day that I walk into my condo this is the first thing I see on the table near the door. Candy is definitely an area where I could benefit with some more self control. Since this is the first thing I walk into it is almost an unconscious thought to grab something when I walk in. This book has made me think more about this behavior though and I have realized I am more prone to grabbing candy or extra pieces on days that I am more tired or stressed. This makes sense because when certain areas of our brain are deprived we are more likely to make impulsive choices like snacking on candy instead of something healthy. This book has opened my eyes to a lot of my little behaviors like this and that just simply being more aware of them and retraining the brain can make all the difference when it comes to self control. The following link is to a video that explains how easy it is to make choices to eat sugary things like candy and how this can be very addictive and detrimental to health. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SoQblPWVHvw
This book addresses an issue that we all face everyday- the issue of self control and having good willpower. This can be small things like skipping candy as mentioned above or it can be larger things like not cheating on a spouse or stopping a drug addiction. No matter the self control issue, understanding how self control works in our brain functioning is essential in gaining more willpower. The book not only provides this understanding but it provides readers with all kinds of activities and ideas that will help them have more willpower in their life. I will practice the exercises in my life and watch for the positive changes that many of Kelly McGonigal’s students experienced in her willpower class. I believe this is a book that could benefit anyone who reads it and that it will greatly help any reader in gaining more willpower to better their life.
McGonigal, Kelly. The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. Penguin Group, 2013.