Here’s how much I liked this book: I bought a copy. That may not sound like a big deal, but I work in a library and am a cheapskate by nature, so I get almost everything I want to read for free. But I was so impressed by Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters and What You Can Do to Get More of It that I bought a copy for various loved ones whose willpower waverings are as powerful as my own.
Even if you are one of those relatively happy souls who has enough insight to work through the limitations of your human willpower, this Stanford University psychology instructor’s book will charm you with its often humorous stories about how and why our will works or fails.
But if you or any of your loved ones are among those who spend much of their lives feeling like failures for lack of willpower, the book is truly a treasure. One of the key things is that she writes about both how to stop doing what you don’t want to do and how to start doing what you do want to do.
McGonigal is not so much a scientific researcher — she relates no findings or theories of her own — but she is an outstanding scientific teacher and reporter. The book is not only well organized and easy to read, but the abundant insights and advice it offers are backed up by scores of studies in the science of willpower. (Look up the marshmallow test on pages 163 and 164 to laugh at how 4-year-olds tried to resist marshmallows and to almost cry at how their success or failure at achieving delayed gratification predicted their success or failure in teen-age life.)
Each of the nine chapters addresses an aspect of why it is sometimes so hard to live the way we want to live and then lays out straightforward suggestions of how to change our behavior. My own favorite is a play on the old idea that you make a firm commitment to “punish yourself” by giving money to a charity if you fail to meet your exercise goals or cut back on cigarettes. Most of us would pick a charity we already support, so where’s the pain?
What if, McGonigal asks, you made it a charity you do not support? Or even, I ask, what if you made it one that you actively oppose? Depending on your bias, picture yourself donating $100 to either the NRA or the Brady Campaign and see how fast you walk around the block.
One of my senior regrets is not reading more self-help books over the years. Partly, I suppose, I didn’t realize how much help I could use, but mostly, many of the books that I started were just boring. McGonigal’s book is different because it is full of fascinating information and is written so delightfully. If you need help living your life willfully — and who doesn’t? — Kelly McGonigal can be your new best friend.