Whatever your New Year’s Resolution, there’s a science-help book for you.  You’ll get great advice mixed in with the funniest, most fascinating stories and studies science can provide. I put together my favorite science-help books for every possible New Year’s Resolution.

Check out the slide show on the Huffington Post’s Books Section.

[Excerpted Below]

The self-help shelves are full of guides on weight loss, health, happiness, and self-improvement. But sometimes the most life-changing ideas and advice are found in the science section.

As a health psychologist, it’s my job to help people make difficult changes. I learned early on that it was easier to change people’s attitudes and behaviors with a fascinating new finding than with platitudes or pleading. The right study doesn’t just convince you that you should do something. It gives you a whole new way to understand yourself and the world around you.

For example, when I show my Stanford students videos of an addicted rat willing to be electrocuted for its next fix, they report back that remembering this image gives them the willpower to resist temptation. Pictures of how the brain responds to bargains helps shopaholics understand their need to buy; studies showing the importance of self-compassion for weight loss convinced dieters to stop calling themselves fat, lazy, and hopeless.

And in my experience, it’s these “A-ha!” insights that give us the inspiration and motivation to make a change for good. That’s why I wrote The Willpower Instinct – to give people enough A-ha moments to tackle any challenge.

Want to know my favorite picks for science help to be happier, get fit, save money, have better sex, lose weight, break bad habits, be kinder to yourself, and more? Check out the slide show on the Huffington Post’s Books Section.

Bookstore browsing image by Martin Cathrae, licensed under Creative Commons.

Earlier this summer I had fun contributing to a special episode of “Strange Animal,” a weekly radio show on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that is a bit like National Public Radio’s fantastic “Radio Lab” show.

The show asks the question: “Why do we lack willpower?” and talks to three psychologists: myself, procrastination researcher Tim Pychyl, and David Walsh, author of No: Why Kids-of All Ages-Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It. Then the host gamely tries out our theories and advice.

You can listen to it here or download it for free on itunes.

We’re joined this week by Dr. Kelly McGonigal, to discuss her work at Stanford University, where she is teaching compassion-based practices from the Buddhist tradition, taught in a way that pulls from scientific research and appeals to a secular sensibility.

As part of her work with CCARE she shares some of her background with Stanford as well as her long-standing Buddhist practice, which pulls from both the Zen and Tibetan traditions. We close the discussion by exploring some of the difficulties with teaching meditation in a secular context, as well as some of the benefits that come through framing the teachings in scientific and psychological terms.

Listen to the podcast (or read the transcript) here.

UPDATE (June 2012): Please note that all admissions for the 2012-2013 program have been completed. The admissions process for the next program will begin in 2013, and information will be available at this site at the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.


The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education is launching a new teacher certification program. I am co-running this program, and will be co-teaching the core classes as well as retreats. Below is all the info! Note that the early application deadline is 2/15, and the regular admissions deadline is 3/15.


CCARE’s Compassion Training Teacher Certification program is a part-time, 12-month training for professionals who want to deepen their ability to share the science, philosophy, and pedagogy of compassion. Graduates, who fulfill all program requirements, including a period of supervised teaching, will be certified to teach CCARE’s Compassion Training Course. The Compassion Training Course is 9-week program developed by a team of psychologists, scientists, and contemplative scholars at Stanford University.


Requirements include:

  • Academic coursework (1 course per quarter) that may be completed at the Stanford University campus or online
  • Quarterly projects that can be completed independently
  • 2 3-day residential retreats at an educational retreat center and sanctuary in Woodside, CA, and 1 5-day professional intensive course at Stanford University.

Retreat dates for the 2012-2013 academic year are as follows:

3 day intensive retreat, September 7-9, 2012, at Stillheart Institute in Woodside, CA.

3 day intensive retreat, January 18-20, 2013, at Stillheart Institute in Woodside, CA.

5 day intensive retreat, June 26-30, 2013, at Stanford University.

Pre-Requisite for the Program

Students in the Teacher Certification Program are required to take either the 9-week Compassion Training Course, or a 3-day intensive version of the course, by September 2012. This pre-requisite may be completed following acceptance in to the Teacher Certification Program. See live course listings here.

Who are the instructors and retreat leaders for the program?

Classes and retreats will be led by certified instructors affiliated with the Center for Compassion & Altruism Research & Education. See a partial instructor list here.

Academic Calendar

Fall 2012(September 24-December 14, 2012)

Retreat at Stillheart Institute in Woodside, CA. September 7-9, 2012

Academic Coursework: The Science of Compassion. This class will explore the latest scientific thinking on the evolution of compassion; the psychology, biology, and neuroscience of empathy, compassion, and altruism; and how early life experiences, social forces, and culture shape our responses to others’, as well as our own suffering

Independent Project: Daily practice of the compassion-focused meditations taught in the Compassion Training Course, along with a journal of observations and questions.

Winter 2012 (January 7-March 22, 2013)

Retreat at Stillheart Institute in Woodside, CA. January 18-20, 2013

Academic Coursework: Philosophical Perspectives on Compassion. This class will explore how various religious and philosophical traditions understand suffering, compassion, and altruism; and how individuals can draw on and respect different traditions when interacting with diverse groups.

Independent Project: Retake or virtually view the Compassion Training Course, with a focus on analyzing classroom dynamics and teaching strategies.

Spring 2012 (April 1-June 12, 2013)

No Retreat.

Academic Coursework: Perspectives on the Practice of Compassion. This class will address practical strategies for offering compassionate presence and service in a wide range of settings, from hospitals to prisons, and how to avoid compassion fatigue and burnout. A wide range of guest speakers will share their professional and personal experiences.

Independent Project: Complete and report on a service project (volunteer or professional) that involves offering compassionate presence and/or action.

Summer 2012

Professional Intensive at Stanford University, CA. June 26-30, 2013

During this intensive, practical/oral exit examinations will be completed.

No Academic Coursework.

Supervised Teaching. Candidates who wish to be certified to teach the Compassion Training Course will teach the 9-week program under the supervision of a senior instructor. Candidates will have up to 1 year (Summer 2013) to complete this requirement. Undergoing the supervision process does not guarantee that candidates will be certified; however, every effort will be made to support the candidate through the process.

How to Apply

What are the admission requirements?

We welcome applicants of diverse backgrounds and goals.

Ideal candidates will have professional experience in a field that is related to, or could be enriched by ideas and practices of compassion. This includes, but is not limited to: education, healthcare, social work, psychotherapy, religious services, public policy, law, business, science and others.

There are no education requirements for admission to the certificate program. However, candidates must be prepared to complete a graduate-level curriculum in psychology, philosophy, and theories of teaching/learning.

Because daily compassion-focused meditation practice is central to the Compassion Training Course and Teacher Certification Program, all candidates must be willing to commit to their own daily personal practice. Candidates are not required to have previous experience practicing or teaching meditation. However, such experience will be considered in the admission process.

How do I apply?

To apply, complete the online application process.

Application fee: $50 payable online.

You will be asked to submit the following materials via postal mail. Please send the materials to:

CCARE Teacher Certification Program, 1215 Welch Road, Module B Room 55, Stanford, CA 94305-5400

  • A brief personal statement (approximately 1000 words) explaining your interest in the program, including how professional and/or personal experiences have shaped your interest.
  • A brief response (approximately 500 words) to one of the following questions:
  1. Compassion is often described as the desire to relieve suffering. How do you define suffering, and what does it mean to you to relieve suffering?
  2. Describe a time when your compassion was challenged, or you experienced the limits of your own compassion.
  • A resume or C.V. that includes your education, work experience, and any other relevant activities (e.g. service/volunteer projects, religious or community involvement, meditation training).
  • 2 letters of recommendation from someone who is well-suited to assess your candidacy for the program. The letters may come from a colleague/co-worker, employer, religious leader or meditation teacher, or anyone in your community who can speak to your interest in compassion, education, and/or service.

All applications will be reviewed by the admissions team. Applicants may be contacted by email/phone to arrange for an interview.

Deadlines for Application

There are two deadlines for applying to the Professional Certificate Program in Compassion Education.

Early Acceptance Deadline: Feb 15, 2012

We will begin reviewing applications, and granting early acceptance, to highly qualified and motivated candidates on a rolling basis. Applicants may be contacted for interviews. Those accepted will be notified of their acceptance by March 15, 2012. Applicants not accepted in this process will be fully re-considered during regular admissions (see below).

Regular Admissions Deadline: March 15, 2012

Submit all materials by March 15. Applicants may be contacted for interviews. All candidates will be notified of the admissions decision by May 1, 2012.

What is the cost?

The total cost for completing the year-long program is approximately $4500.

Application fee: $50

Pre-requisite fee (if not already completed): $325 for in person 9-week course or $750 for 3-day intensive

Quarterly tuition/assessment fee (Fall through Spring): $1500 total

$500 per quarter; $350 for each 10-week class; $150 for each quarter’s individual assessment ; $175 for the second Compassion Training Course in Winter, 2013.

Retreat fees (housing/meals/materials included; fees may vary based on housing choices): $750 each for Fall and Winter Retreats.

Professional Intensive fee $950 for 5 day intensive at Stanford.

Additional costs for those who require for on-campus meals and housing.

Teaching supervision fee (for certification candidates only):$500 tuition fee for the group supervision conference call and a single evaluation of a single class- live or video. Candidates who want more intensive mentoring will have the opportunity to arrange for private supervision at an additional cost of $125 per hour.

Payment is due on a quarterly basis.

Limited financial aid/scholarship money is available. Please contact sctinformation@stanford.edu for more information.

Registration for The Science of Willpower (Jan-Mar 2014) through Stanford Continuing Studies is now open. We meet Monday evenings, 7-8:50 PM, and the course is open to the public.

For more information about the course, check out this article from STANFORD Magazine October 2011


Early in Kelly McGonigal’s eight-week Continuing Studies course on the science of willpower, a middle-aged woman sitting in the large auditorium raised her hand and questioned whether the willpower challenges the instructor had been discussing—problems resisting chocolate, procrastinating and other failures of self-control—were all that widespread. “We all get up in the morning and generally do what needs to be done. It doesn’t seem like all that many of us have a problem with willpower,” she said. To which McGonigal responded, in what sounded like playful indignation, “You are wrong!” The class burst out laughing, and McGonigal, PhD ’04, proceeded to explain with typical aplomb that a shortage of willpower shows itself in all sorts of everyday ways, from spending too much time on the Internet to snapping at your family.

Talking to McGonigal weeks later, however, I learn that this student’s comment hit a nerve. “Almost everybody has at least one thing they don’t have under control, but people don’t talk about these things,” she says. Denying the prevalence of self-control struggles, as is the norm among Stanford undergrads, creates more stigma and shame, she says—and shame, as she teaches, actually backfires as a motivator.

For homework, McGonigal, a health psychologist, has students report by email their progress with their personal willpower challenges, and then asks for volunteers to share with the whole class. But the challenges they brought up in class—the difficulty of getting up early to take a walk, or finishing their taxes—seem both banal and benign compared to what many are privately struggling with.

“The emails I get show that people are in the class for more serious willpower challenges than people talk about in group settings.” Problems with alcoholism, binge eating, addiction, even infidelity—”there’s a lot of that, and it never gets into group discussion,” says McGonigal, who has taught the course since 2008.

Science of Willpower is one of the most popular courses offered in the Continuing Studies program, always attracting more than 100 students, according to program director Dan Colman. One student, a San Francisco resident, rents a car every Monday just for this. Several others, McGonigal says, have taken the course multiple times, getting more and more out of it.

It’s easy to see why. At times the class feels like a one-woman show, in which McGonigal not only presents research results but also describes the experiments that led to them, with the voice and body language of an actor. She fills her slides with scholarly citations and eye-grabbing photos, continually updates her material with the latest studies, and illustrates the science with colorful examples drawn from the world around us. In explaining “pre-commitment strategies”—based on economist Thomas Schelling’s insight that giving up some options can, paradoxically, give you the upper hand—she describes how Jonathan Franzen helped himself finish his long-delayed Freedom by caulking his laptop’s Ethernet port with Super Glue, a surefire way to stay offline.

To show the kludgy way our prefrontal cortex, the center of thoughtful decision making, came to sit on top of the brain’s impulse-driven inner core, she picks the perfect simile for her Silicon Valley audience. “Evolution is like Microsoft rather than Apple: Instead of redesigning something, evolution slaps on a patch,” says McGonigal, who as a PhD student won the Walter J. Gores Award, Stanford’s highest teaching honor.

“She’s doing a great job of taking the research and making it relevant to everyday people,” Colman says. McGonigal writes a popular blog on PsychologyToday.com and will reach an even wider audience in her forthcoming trade book, The Willpower Instinct (Avery/Penguin, 2011).

McGonigal’s take on willpower is at odds with how most people, including other scholars, think of it. “Most psychologists and scientists don’t take the term ‘willpower’ seriously,” she says—they prefer to talk about “self-regulation,” or self-control. McGonigal studied emotional self-regulation for her doctoral thesis, working with Professor James Gross, in part to learn to manage her own feelings. But over the years, particularly through listening to students, she’s found that self-control is not enough to get you to do the really hard things. You may be able to resist one cigarette, for example, but you won’t be able to quit smoking if you’re doing it only because you think you should. That’s why her definition of willpower includes not only “I will” power and “I won’t” power, but also the crucial motivational component, which she dubs “I want” power.

Seeing her calm, collected self—physically fit, perfectly groomed and unflustered by anything from a wayward projector to an unexpected question from a student—it’s hard to imagine that McGonigal has any personal trouble with impulse control. In class, she fesses up mainly to her temptation to shop and a fear of flying (both of which she has ways to overcome). But she says that becoming the self-possessed person she is today was “a major evolution over time.” The meditation and mindfulness she’s practiced for years—scientifically proven techniques for bolstering self-awareness, reducing stress and giving the brain the respite required for self-control—can help those struggling with issues from food to procrastination, she says.

Incredibly, she’s still anxious just before she teaches, each time—but she’s learned to rise above these feelings. “I use everything that’s in the class,” she says, particularly the classic “white bear” studies showing that the harder you try to suppress a thought or feeling, the more sway it has. “If you expect these inner experiences to go away before you do what’s difficult, like resisting temptations or doing something that makes you nervous, you could be waiting forever.”

Yet willpower brings immense benefits. McGonigal shows footage from the famous “marshmallow” experiments by psychologist Walter Mischel (now at Columbia), in which he tested the ability of Bing Nursery School children to delay gratification for the promise of a bigger reward. Preschoolers, who don’t know they’re being filmed, sit on their hands or shut their eyes to resist grabbing the treat in front of them in favor of two treats later—or give in to temptation seconds after the researcher has left the room. The most startling result of these studies is their ability to predict important real-world outcomes decades later: Kids who were best at controlling their urges at age 4 went on to do better in school and in life than their impulsive classmates, who ended up with higher rates of teen pregnancy and drug abuse.

The class presumes that you can improve your willpower, but the marshmallow studies say nothing about that. Could it be that Mischel’s most self-controlled participants may have gone on to perform better in life not because they’d learned tricks like blocking out temptation, but because they had better self-control to begin with? “I actually think there’s very little evidence that this stuff is fixed,” McGonigal says. By “stuff” she means working memory, attention and all the other underpinnings of controlled behavior. She concedes that some people are born with “gigantic prefrontal cortexes,” but that’s not the end of the story. “The brain is relatively plastic”—malleable to the influence of our environment and life experience—”and the most plastic regions tend to be most related to stress and self-control.”

Marina Krakovsky, ’92, is the co-author of Secrets of the Moneylab: How Behavioral Economics Can Improve Your Business (Portfolio/Penguin).

Science is demonstrating how meditation restructures your brain and can train it to concentrate, feel greater compassion, cope with stress, and more. Kelly McGonigal tells us about the latest research—and how to put it into practice.

This article originally appeared in Yoga Journal.

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