Add This to Your New Year’s Resolution

While thinking about goal-setting, I was listening to Shankar Vedantam’s Hidden Brain episode, “Where Gratitude Gets You.” He was interviewing psychologist David DeSteno about the role gratitude plays in helping us achieve our goals.

Early in the episode, they reminded listeners that one ingredient for success is delayed gratification. DeSteno points to the infamous “marshmallow test” by Walter Mischel which concluded that children with the most self-control are situated to be the most successful in life. (You’ve no doubt seen plenty of parodies of the marshmallow test on Youtube.)

The Marshmallow Test

What’s so fun is that DeSteno ran an adult version of the marshmallow test at Northeastern University, but this time with cash. He found that adults, not just toddlers, were pretty susceptible to instant gratification, agreeing to accept $17 in cash right away, rather than waiting for $100 in cash in a year.

Another thing that DeSteno found in his research was related to people’s [in]ability to use self-control in order to act with integrity. His team conducted a study where they asked participants to flip a coin in order to decide which of two tasks they would complete for the experiment – a long, tedious task, or a short, fun one. In this willpower test, 90% of participants fudged the coin toss flip to make the answer be in their favor, creating all kinds of stories for why it was okay for them to cheat.

Perhaps you think that you would pass the willpower test with flying colors, but we all know that self-control is hard to cultivate. And what’s more, it is interesting to note that self-control, and not giving in, is, according to research, stressful on the body. DeSteno suggests that using self-control alone to reach your goals brings a stress response that actually affects your health. He cites a study by Gregory Miller of Northwestern University who was working with kids from disadvantaged background, teaching them executive control strategies. He found that over time, those strategies worked, but “the stress level that those children… and adolescents were under began to manifest itself physically. And so if you kind of expand that out, the upshot is, yes, if you’re always trying to exert self-control, you can achieve your goals, but your health is going to suffer.”

For those of you who pride yourselves on being able to win the marshmallow test or to not cheat on coin flips, beware. There’s another caveat for those with self-control superpowers. The interviewers cite a study by Christopher Boyce that indicates how self-controlled folks interact with failure.

DeSteno explained: “This was a study looking at the trait of conscientiousness, which is the ability to kind of put your nose to the grindstone and persevere in pursuing your goals. And people who do that, yes, they succeed. But when they do fail (and they do fail less because they’re working really hard), the hit to their well-being is 120 percent greater than the rest of us. And although the data doesn’t show exactly why that is in that study, personally, I believe that one reason is because these individuals haven’t been focused on cultivating the social relationships that are there to catch us when we fall and to make us more resilient.”

It seems that self-control alone is not enough.   

The role of emotions in achieving your goals

Next, Vedantam and DeSteno discuss emotions in relation to achieving goals, and they hint that emotions may be an important key for success. In fact, DeSteno suggests that we should rethink the “use” of emotions. He suggests that emotions are not about the past; instead, emotions are about protecting ourselves for the future: “Many of us see our emotions as the enemy when it comes to carrying out our resolutions, but we often forget something: emotions can also be enormously constructive and powerful… Emotions are not about the past. They are about the future. And what I mean by that is if you even just think about the brain metabolically, what good would it be to have a response that is only relevant to things that have happened before? The reason we have emotions are to help us decide what to do next. When you are feeling an emotion, it’s altering the computations. Your brain is making your predictions for the best course of action.”

DeSteno’s work explores how cultivating certain emotions allows us to meet our resolutions. In one study, DeSteno’s team found a correlation between gratefulness and being able to practice self-control. That is, when people were in a state of gratefulness, they were able to double their self-control. Now it took participants $31 of cash up front, instead of $17, before they would give in to a cash payout, instead of waiting for $100 in a year.  

Not only did studies show the connection between gratefulness and practicing self-control, but also between gratefulness and lowered stress. The emotion of gratefulness elicited by counting one’s blessings had a powerful effect, as DeSteno notes: “Robert Emmons would ask a certain percentage of his subjects to engage in daily gratitude reflection. So he was making them basically count their blessings as a kind of an experimental intervention. And what he found is that over time, the individuals who did this reported that they were better able to engage in exercise again, a type of sacrifice in the moment for future gain. They reported better quality of their relationships. They reported less symptoms of illness. And so taken together, what this kind of signifies this to me, that it’s practicing gratitude is enhancing people’s well-being and kind of reducing the stress that comes from illness or feelings of loneliness or disconnection.

Additionally, a study by Wendy Mendez shows how gratitude can buffer the effects of stress, and she found that gratitude “was basically like a booster shot for stress reduction.

Vedantam & DeSteno remind us that “it might be better to think of gratitude as a skill rather than as a trade or just simply an emotion, something that just pops up unbidden in our hearts.” Also, “emotions are tools that you can cultivate in your life. When you meditate, you’re building an automatic response to feel compassion more regularly. When you count your blessings daily, you’re engaging in an activity. You’re curating your own emotional states. You’re making yourself feel more grateful.”

[And just think: all of this on a secular podcast about the benefits of gratefulness, while our Scriptures speak about thankfulness upwards of 170 times. It is always so fascinating to find instances of science aligning with spiritual directives given by God.]

Theology and brain science on transformational change

I was pondering this Hidden Brain podcast over the Thanksgiving holiday when I stumbled upon an interview with neurotheologian Jim Wilder, a clinical psychologist who studies the intersection between theology and brain science. He was discussing his new book, Renovated: God, Dallas Willard, and the Church That Transforms. Wilder draws on from multiple conversations with contemporary Dallas Willard (who positions himself as a counselor) to produce his book which asks the question: how is it, exactly, that people change? What causes transformation in people?

Interviewer Skye Jethani asked the question this way: “What leads to real transformation? For a long time in the western church, we’ve believed that knowledge alone is what will change people. Therefore, if we just learn enough of the Bible, if we just have enough theology, our behavior will be transformed. Well, a lot of us have realized that that’s actually not the case, and so in recent years, a lot of us have been drawn towards spiritual disciplines, the practices that change our behaviors, and we’ve come to believe that a combination of knowledge and practice is what really leads to transformation.” But for Wilder, there is a third component, one that is deeply rooted in our biology.

Indeed, we understand the limits of “worldview education,” that is, using sermons, Sunday schools, and Christian schools as the primary means to “communicate” someone into the kingdom of God in order to bring about transformation. (I have blogged extensively about the limits of worldview education as a means of transformational change and as a mode of transferring the Gospel and discipling Kingdom participants.) Certainly, theologians and philosophers like James K.A. Smith (drawing on the work of Charles Taylor) depict other means of imparting the Gospel or forming the imagination and desire, one of the strongest drivers of behavior (for, as Smith puts, “we are what we love”). While many Christian leaders today emphasize theology and worldview instruction (or even a passive education of “knowing all the worldviews so that you can be aware of how they depart from Christianity”), we know through work by Smith and others that factors much stronger than explicit instruction of worldview components (through sermons and high school Bible classes) are the factors that lead to evident behaviors. We call these forces liturgies, or embodied practices that tell us much about the way we see the world than any stated doctrine, and these liturgies (or embodied practices) bend back on us and reinforce the way we view the world. 

In the interview (beginning at 48:00), Jim Wilder (who has the closest thing to a Mennonite or Beachy Amish accent that I’ve heard on air – no relation) speaks as a neurotheologian when he says that if the brain tells us something, and the Bible tells us something, it strikes a theologian that we ought to pay attention. Wilder then argues that the brain needs to learn to be Christian, and that it is the main thing that learns to interact with God. (Admittedly a departure from that recognizable American evangelical Gnosticism that always situates the body and the material as less spiritual.)

Many are familiar with Dallas Willard’s VIM model as a vehicle for transformational change: Vision, Intention, and Means. Wilder breaks down the components this way: “The ‘vision’ everyone can agree on. We have to have the right ideas, the right vision, the right understanding of things. Truth and all of that fits very well on the vision side. The ‘means’ side is what are the actual practices that we have to go through. But the ‘intentions’ side was always the squirrely one. How do you actually get people to try to do this? What’s the motivation?… Dallas knew right from the start it wasn’t willpower. Because there are some people who are willful, but not necessarily better spiritually. How do we go about motivating people to want to be Christ-like?… The strongest motivator in the brain is attachment. It’s who we love. It forms our identity in the brain, it forms our attachments, it shapes our ideas… We are much more changed by who we love than what we believe.

Wilder then explores if there is anything in Scripture that hints at, or supports, a kind of transformational attachment love. (For he acknowledges that “attachment love” as a concept is only about fifty years old in science.) He points us to Scriptures like Isaiah 49:15, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” This example of nurture between mother and child is certainly an example of what we now call attachment love. Wilder points to the difficult-to-translate Hebrew word checed as further Biblical instance of God pointing to the attachment function he created in our brains. (The word appears 248 times in the Bible.) Wilder explains checed love as a kind of gluing us to God: “This attachment is permanent, it is full of good things, it is full of kindness, and it is a source of love for us.” Wilder asks what resembles checed love in the human brain – and it is attachment love.

I was keenly interested in Jethani’s and Wilder’s discussion of how attachment to a group forms our responses and behavior, rather than words or ideas. (Especially as we in the church continue to deal in “truths,” focusing on “having the right ideas.”) They asked the question how we might form deeper attachments to God, which Wilder deemed a very important question, for he pointed out that Willard had not yet heard of a theology where salvation involved a new attachment with God. Jethani agreed, citing that the way many of us have been taught about salvation is agreeing to a set of doctrines, or having intellectual assent to “ideas that are true or are from the Bible.”

Fostering attachment for transformational change

When asked how we might foster a deeper attachment to God (rather than just having a knowledge of ideas about him, or incorporating practices), Wilder responded this way: “I take biological systems to be a metaphor for spiritual life. Jesus talked about your hearing, your eyesight and things like that… they reflect some kind of greater truth. Attachment is the way your brain finds out what gives me life. So we attach to what feeds us. That’s how it starts for every child, for every animal. You want to get your dog to attach to you? You gotta feed it. If you don’t give it food and water, that dog is not going to attach to you, and the same with any living creature. It’s what gives us our food and water. So in one sense you could look at the original sin as letting the wrong person feed us.”

Wilder takes it one step further: “And you would anticipate that if feeding you was very central, then central to most worship service there should be some meal, or some feeding of people. The god when he came to earth would say, ‘Um, you know, I’m like bread for you. I’m the bread that would give you life. I’m the water that would give you life. And the thing is, he actually practiced that in relationship to other people, so now we have life-giving relationships.

Wilder lists a second step: “Once you get past food, the next thing that causes attachment is joy. You will attach to whoever it is who is just super glad to see you.

But the most important takeaway from the interview, the actual kicker, is when Jethani asked, “Any final advice to people who want to foster that deeper attachment to God? What do they need to include in their life or remove from their life that’s going to help their brain form that attachment?

Wilder responded, “Most of the spiritual disciplines are pretty good at removing stuff that shouldn’t be there and creating some space for God, but they’re not particularly designed directly to create that attachment with God. So the number one thing that forms that attachment with God is actually thankfulness or appreciation. Every time something good comes your way from God, make a point to thank him about and then tell somebody you know how grateful you are… I think there’s one other thing I would tell people. The relational system that runs your identity has a firewall in it. It won’t let your identity change unless you have an attachment to the person who you’re interacting with. So if we have a problem, some area of ourselves that needs changing, we actually need to have God’s presence, either through another person or through God directly, be available for us right when we are having our hard time. So the thing that we typically do as religious people is we hide our hard times from each other, so we never have this attachment, and it’s because we think this whole Christian thing is not about permanent attachments. If you don’t like what you see, you’ll dump me. But all attachments for the brain, and I think for God, are meant to be permanent. If we are becoming a permanent people, then if I see you struggling, or having a weakness, my inclination is to bring God into that moment of weakness with you. And if we have a permanent relationship, you’ll let me do that.

I’m intrigued that neurotheologians and secular psychologists both point to gratefulness and thanksgiving as a means of transformational change. (You can be sure that practicing gratefulness is a part of my resolutions for 2021!) Significant, too, is this idea of attachment love both in the spiritual and the relational (especially remembering back to the example of overly-conscientious people who experience hard-hitting failure when they fall, and who may not have cultivated the necessary social relationships in the meantime).

I pray you find much success in 2021 as you cultivate regular thanksgiving into your life rhythms. And may your arms stretch wide as you welcome the good gift of life-giving relationship when it is sent.

2 thoughts on “Add This to Your New Year’s Resolution”

  1. This was timely, Esther, and confirming of a number of things for me. The significance of belonging, attachment, and gratitude rings true. Thanks for putting this together.

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