In his recent book Emotional Success, David DeSteno has powerfully argued the case against willpower. One major issue is that will power is a muscle, and muscles get tired. It takes an enormous amount of energy to consistently overcome urges. Researchers at the University of Florida designed an ingenious way to test this by timing subjects’ efforts to solve an unsolvable geometric puzzle. The study was billed as a test of intelligence, but subjects were invited to have a snack before their test. Experimenters set down two plates, one with radishes and one with cookies fresh from the oven. The control group was asked to chow down on the warm cookies while ignoring the radishes—even the most devout vegans acknowledge that this is no test of willpower for most people. The experimental group was told to ignore the cookies and eat the radishes. The control group persevered for about 20 minutes, while the experimental group spent less than half that time. The experimental group, with their depleted willpower reserves, had little patience for geometrical puzzles¹.
When you consistently exercise willpower, unlike muscles, it’s actually bad for your health. Scientists studying grit came to this conclusion after noticing the premature aging of overachievers that came from disadvantaged backgrounds. Individuals from poor backgrounds with high levels of grit—that oft-studied quality characterized by tenacity, energy and self-control—were displaying health problems not seen in equally successful, equally gritty individuals from different social backgrounds. The stress of using willpower for self-control is potentially quite harmful (DeSteno).
If you’re struggling going vegan or staying vegan, don’t rely exclusively on cognitive strategies like willpower. DeSteno persuasively argues that there are deeper changes that ought to take place emotionally if we want to maximize our self-control. Reason and emotion are often placed in conflict, with reason considered the better of the two, but harnessing emotions as tools for self-control can be be very powerful, without the downsides associated with will power. Desteno identifies three such emotions: gratitude, compassion and willpower.
“Gratitude is the moral memory of mankind,” wrote sociologist George Simmel. Gratitude is most emphatically not the same as indebtedness. Indebtedness weighs you down with a future obligation. Gratefulness is intrinsic motivation to pay it forward. It’s a pro-social emotion focused on creating a better future, rather than setting right the past. Gratitude “makes future goals more attractive, thereby easing the way to decisions favoring the future” (DeSteno).
With its focus on creating a better future for ourselves and others, it’s certainly possible that cultivating gratitude could help bring those on the fence over to veganism. There’s no direct research on this topic of course, but some of the benefits of gratitude seem like they could cross over well. So much of the research suggests that gratitude helps us overcome the sort of short-term, impulsive behavior that could drive would-be vegans back to the familiar comforts of meat and dairy. Research suggests that grateful people make fewer impulse purchases and arrive at conclusions more patiently. Perhaps most critically, grateful people are more health conscious—more able to resist tobacco and alcohol and more motivated to improve their diet and exercise habits.
Jeremy Bailenson and Hal Herschfield wanted to test the idea that feeling compassion for ourselves could cause us to invest more in our retirement accounts and less in short-term pleasures. But, how could they inspire their student subjects to feel compassion for themselves? The solution they came up with is as ingenious as it is strange: virtual reality modeling of the student’s own likeness aged 50 or so years. The twenty-somethings were introduced to a senior citizen version of themselves. Asked how they would spend $1,000 that suddenly appeared in their lap, the subjects dramatically increased the amount they would allocate to their retirement savings. Want to really jack those numbers up? Show them a frowning, melancholy version of themselves.
The tie-in to veganism is fairly obvious here. Compassion is about sensitivity to the suffering of the conscious beings around us. Compassion is the enemy of indifference. It magnifies our sense of ethical duty. The most obvious way to introduce a greater sense of compassion is through meditation. In fact, maximizing compassion was the original aim of meditation from a Buddhist point of view. Since I started meditating a few months back, I’ve harbored the suspicion that a meditating world would bring us a long way towards a vegan world. I don’t know if there is a direct correlation, but it must say something that the food served on meditation retreat is almost exclusively vegetarian and often vegan as well.
Pride is the surprising inclusion in this list. It is all too often seen as a synonym for arrogance. However, there is another dimension to this emotion, as it evolved to help us perform optimally in small tribal units, where specialized skill was essential. If you were exceptional at identifying which foods were poisonous, pride in your abilities kept you honing those skills for the benefit of the group. Pride increases perseverance and has been shown to keep people performing even unpleasant tasks.
An integral part of staying vegan is the pride in the contribution you have made to making the world a place where there is a little less suffering and exploitation of conscious creatures. And the role I have played in helping others limit their consumption of meat and dairy is a further source of pride for me. I’m acutely aware that I am a representative of veganism for people who have little exposure to it. I take that responsibility seriously and I wear it as a badge of honor.
If you’d like to read more about the research on this topic, Desteno made an appearance on the excellent Very Bad Wizards podcast and his book is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Kobo book stores.
¹ For more on the so-called “radish test,” see this article.