Unlocking Teen Character and Emotions

Promoting Emotional Success

In this Q&A, Senior Writer for the CPTC, Allison Gilbert, has a far-reaching conversation with Dr. David DeSteno, Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University and Director of the Social Emotions Lab, a multi-college consortium dedicated to exploring character and emotions. He is also the author of Emotional Success, The Truth About Trustand co-author of Out of Character. 

David DeSteno, author of Emotional Success, expert in character development
David DeSteno, PhD

Allison Gilbert: Your research shows character is far from fixed; It’s actually fluid. What do you mean by this?

David DeSteno: Much of moral behavior comes down to trade-offs between choices that make us feel good in the moment but may lead to future problems, and decisions that require a measure of sacrifice in the short-term but promise greater satisfaction in the long one. As an example, take cheating. If a student cheats on a test now, or an adult cheats a coworker, he or she is ahead in the moment. There’s a better grade or more money at hand. But if a person gets caught (as often happens), there will be a great deal of damage in the future.

Being honest, however, offers the opposite: Less immediate gain, but more long-term reward. What our work is beginning to show is that the mind is making these types of calculations all the time: What’s more beneficial in any given case, taking a long-term or short-term view? It may surprise you, but people are pretty poor at actually predicting how they’ll act. In fact, we’ve found that while almost no one thinks cheating is a good thing, a good percentage of those same people will cheat when given the chance to get away with it. Same goes for character virtues like compassion. We’d like to think we’d help people in need, but our work shows how and why we’ll often disregard the suffering of others.

I always remind people humans didn’t evolve to be saints or sinners. We evolved to be adaptive, and that means behaving in ways that benefit us. Because of the need to maintain a good reputation, most times the ways that benefit us correspond to character virtues — being honest, fair, and generous. But other times, certain acts — cheating when we can get away with it, exploiting people we see as different from us based on race, ideology, or gender — can bring us gain. So my argument is that if we want to develop true character, we have to understand how our mind works, so that we can use this knowledge to guide our behavior, not solely toward what is beneficial for us, but toward what is truly noble or good.

AG: In your book, Emotional Success, you discuss the importance of gratitude, compassion and pride. Why are these emotions so critical to overall wellness and success?

DS: Emotions alter many of the mind’s computations. If you’re afraid, for example, you’re more likely to behave cautiously and interpret new things as threats. When it comes to character, the emotions we need to focus on are moral ones like gratitude, compassion, and pride. For millennia, human success relied upon working with others, and that meant having good character. It meant being seen as someone who was honest, generous, helpful, and reliable. And it was these emotions that pushed us to act in these very ways.

Today, what we’re finding is that these emotions not only make us willing to sacrifice to help other people, but they also help our future selves. These emotions give us patience, self-control, and empathy. In short, they give us not only the grit we need to reach our goals, but the grace we need to draw others to us, which itself helps ensure future success and well-being. Cultivating these emotions as part of daily life changes what the mind values, and thereby how people behave. And best of all, it does this in a virtually effortless way.

When it comes to character, the emotions we need to focus on are moral ones like gratitude, compassion, and pride.

AG: How can parents help adolescents embrace these emotions?

DS: For gratitude, one strategy is to encourage a regular time to reflect on the kindnesses we’re given. Make it a ritual of sorts for everyone to mention how they’ve benefited from someone else and how that made them feel. The trick here is to focus on the everyday things. Encourage teens, for example, to think of someone who helped them out today at school.

Another opportunity for developing gratitude is using what I call, a reciprocity ring. Here, everyone in the family puts up a sticky note (on the refrigerator, as one option) listing a problem they need help with. Then, everyone puts up a second note offering ideas for solving one of the problems from the first round. Family members can see how they’re interconnected, how their needs can be met by others, how they, too, are capable of offering help. The process begins to make offering assistance, and feeling gratitude, a habit.

For compassion, meditation works. We have a good amount of data showing how practicing mindfulness (even using a smartphone app for 15 minutes a day) increases an individual’s compassion for others. Another strategy is to make it a point every few days for teens to put themselves in another person’s shoes, trying to see the world as that individual might. This tends to make empathy and compassion a more regular experience.

AG: You say emotions play a significant role in guiding behavior and how individuals make decisions. Is this true for teenagers?

DS: Definitely. In fact, it’s likely even more true for teens, who due to maturation patterns in the brain, tend to be more susceptible to the influence of emotions than adults.

AG: You’re Director of the Social Emotions Lab at Northeastern University in Boston. What are you working on right now?

DS: We’re spending much of our time focused on studying how to increase human virtue. Along those lines, we’re examining whether certain virtues, like gratitude, might be parent virtues, in that they give rise to others. We’re also studying ways in which to foster compassion and cooperation across boundaries that typically divide people, such as religion and ethnicity.

About Allison Gilbert

Allison Gilbert is Senior Writer for the CPTC. Her pieces cover an array of topics including self-care, bullying, grief, and resilience. Allison is author of numerous books and speaks across the country to corporations, non-profits, and community groups. You can learn more by visiting www.allisongilbert.com.

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