The Willpower Instinct

4 years ago

I've been wanting to participate in the BlogHer Book Club for a while now, and while I pictured reading some novel I'd never heard of, instead I was selected to read The Willpower Instinct by Dr. Kelly McGonigal. Which is kind of perfect. Dr. McGonigal is a psychology instructor at Standford University, and she wrote this book after one of her courses, "The Science of Willpower," became one of the most popular classes in the Continuing Studies program at Stanford.

willpower, self-control, realistic dietingI can't tell you the last time I read a book that has the potential to be found in the Self-Help section of Barnes & Noble. But I was a psychology major, and reading this book was fun for me, on several levels.

Dr. McGonigal makes research engaging. Not everyone is a psych geek, but she does a great job of explaining relevant studies and why they matter. I'm not surprised that her course is so popular! Her applications are practical and playful. Willpower can be sensitive subject for those who think they lack it, and thankfully, she comes across as honest and encouraging.

The book starts with a discussion of willpower and self-control, is another reason this book was interesting for me. I really hate the concept of willpower, of picking myself up by my bootstraps. And as a Christian, I am automatically think of self-control in light of biblical references. And there's nothing wrong with any of that. My college experience (and all of my life, really), as a Christian studying psychology, was full of looking at how what we've observed in the world lines up with what the Bible tells us about it. It was so fun to see scientific research echo what we should expect to find based on what we know about who God is and what he's created. So. I brought all of that to the table and it was fine. In case anyone's wondering, Christians can venture out of the Religion and Spirituality section. (Sounds like I've been spending too much time at Barnes & Noble. Perhaps I should consider using this book to help me curtail time spent sipping lattes and wondering around book stores. Nah.)

Once I got past my issues with willpower and self-control, I dove in. I would say that one of the author's goals in writing both the course and this book was to pull back the curtain on human decision-making, and to empower normal people to make real changes in their lives by knowing how and why we make the choices we make. This is helpful even as a Christian who believe that God is working in us and for us. It's good to be aware of why a candy bar is harder to resist when you're trying to lose weight but already cheated with a sausage biscuit for breakfast and pizza for lunch. Or why being stressed makes some people drive to the mall and spend money. Or how a healthy choice by one family member can help another start to drop weight and exercise too. I love psychology, and psychologists have studied some pretty fascinating and helpful topics.

Since reading the chapter on The Brain's Big Lie, I'm more aware of how often I check my phone for emails, Facebook posts, etc. because I know I'm getting a little dopamine rush each time. I know that it isn't super satisfying to bury my face in my phone because the anticipating of checking feels better than actually seeing an email or a picture of my friend's kid. Knowing what's going on in my brain helps me put the phone down. Away from me. I know why I want to look at it, and I know I don't really need to. Knowing about our willpower can give us more of it.

Reading something I would never have found my way to has been really enjoyable. It's challenged me in ways Dr. McGonigal probably didn't have in mind. I know that some people don't really care about how this book interacts with Christianity, or any sort of religion or spirituality. But I do! And there are great benefits to knowing what's going on behind the scenes in your brain as you navigate the world in front of you.

This is a paid review for BlogHer Book Club but the opinions expressed are my own.

Cross posted at


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