I intended today’s conversation to be about my recent walks in -30 Celcius weather along the nearby Sawmill Creek path through our neighbourhood. It follows a creek that meanders like an untied ribbon until it flows into the Rideau River. How snow squeaked as I walked and beside me the frozen creak rattled, as though something underneath was trying to escape. So many things creaked. Branches creaked from the lightest chickadee whose weight seemed too heavy to bear in this cold. The metal bridge creaked and the tall grasses creaked in the wind. The current creaked under the ice. Three crows creaked as they flapped tree to tree.
As I breathed through the scarf wrapped around my face and over my nose, my glasses iced over. All I observed was my breath. All I heard were my footsteps and my heartbeat. I couldn’t see the snow on the other side of the creek where sometimes lean coyotes pad, hunting for rabbits.
You might ask why I was walking in Hell-frozen-over cold. Why I risked frostbitten fingers, toes, earlobes, nose, and cheeks and trod through snow and ice, ice, more ice. Because in September I decided I needed to shave off some weight and over three months I lost the equivalent of 10 pounds of butter. I dodged cookies, hid from bacon, took cover from cake and candy and beer and wine. But all the lost pounds found me again at Christmas. Brick by butter brick I added back the weight. And so, swaddled in an insulating layer of protective fat, I decided I needed to walk.
And what stuck in my head during the most recent walk was a New York Times op-ed piece called “The Only Way to Keep Your Resolutions” by psychologist David DeSteno. In short, willpower is out and gratitude and compassion are the keys to self-control. According to DeSteno’s research, employing extreme willpower comes at a cost to health. Bodies suffered from increased stress responses, and “premature aging of their immune cells.” Interesting, eh? Does this mean willpower causes wrinkles? An oversimplification, no doubt, but the article points out that those who fail by use of extreme dedication “…report a hit to their well-being that is 120 percent greater than that reported by those who follow a less stressful path.” Suddenly I was worried about all my dieting failures over the years and what was going on under my wrinkles.
DeSteno argues that what works is building strong relationships and that we should strive to form relationships that allow us to put something, or someone else, ahead of our own desires which will help cultivate gratitude, pride, and compassion.
Gratitude – showing appreciation – apparently directly increases self-control. DeSteno’s research shows when you make someone feel grateful, “…they’ll spend more time helping anyone who asks for assistance….” Pride, too, works in a similar fashion. “Making people feel proud – not arrogant – but proud of the skills they have – makes them more willing to wait for future rewards…work longer and harder….”
He concludes that pride, gratitude and compassion improve the ability to value the future and encourage us to help our future selves. “Feeling pride or compassion has been shown to increase perseverance on difficult tasks by over 30 percent.” But, for those of us who diet and fail, here’s tomorrow’s salted caramel candy: “Gratitude and compassion have been tied to…a greater willingness to exercise and eat healthily….”
DeSteno isn’t talking about dieting at all, of course. He’s talking about becoming a better human being by connecting with others. But I buy the heartfelt science that cultivating social emotions can make it easier to forestall more shortbread and a third glass of wine.
This isn’t a quick fix, is it? If I want to carve off 10 bricks of butter and keep it off forever, it’s going to take more than sheer willpower. Because, when I look at the reasons for diet failure – or weight gain – the inability to forestall a piece of lemon meringue pie now versus a brisk walk along the creek path and fitting into my pants in three months – I’m not just looking at willpower. I’m looking at a lifetime of habits and behaviours that haven’t nurtured compassion, pride, and gratitude. And I have to ask why. And that’s way harder than willpower. Self-examination versus failed willpower? It makes me want to diet instead because otherwise I have to tackle two issues – restraint in the face of delicious food AND becoming a better human. Can I, at 60, a chubby larvae stuck in a cocoon of me, develop eulogy virtues? There’s more at stake than tight pants.