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The Science of Willpower

by Lisa B. Nelson

I saw a lovely young woman, who I will call Cathy, in my office this week. She was there to discuss her inability to lose weight. After discussing the basics of a healthful, whole-foods diet, I recommended she meet regularly with a nutritionist. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “My problem is willpower. I don’t have any, never did. That’s why I am the way I am.”

Cathy spoke about willpower as if it was a fixed entity, like her brown eyes or thick hair. The notion that willpower is a fluid state, a practice or skill that she could freely develop, was completely foreign to her. To help nudge her out of this misperception, I recommended the book The Willpower Instinct, by health psychologist Kelly McGonigal.

As a holistic health professional, I always feel relieved when books that hit the popular press actually support meaningful, evidence-based, mindful health practices. In addition to being a psychologist with a PhD who lectures at Stanford University, McGonigal is a long-time yogi and meditator. This book, with the more illustrative subtitle “How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It,” is an artful introduction to the science and practice of mindful awareness. It’s also an accessible exploration of the neurobiology behind behavior change, explaining how breath, exercise, and thought patterns actually change the structure and functioning of the brain.

For instance, recent studies demonstrate how meditation increases activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for helping us maintain self-control. With just a few weeks of sustained practice, marked changes were visible in the actual structure and size of participants’ gray matter. Another study showed marked differences in brain activation in recently trained meditators versus long-time practitioners, showing that, indeed, practice makes perfect.

So for those of us like Cathy, who want to change but fear we lack the necessary willpower, the news is clear: Mindful effort, practiced over time, will bring us the change that we desire.

Lisa B. Nelson, MD, is Director of Medical Education for Kripalu Healthy Living programs. A longtime advocate for community wellness, Lisa is a practicing physician in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.