A Revolutionary Way to Think About Feeling



This one-to-one mapping of reason to virtue and emotion to vice doesn’t reflect reality… It sets up a false choice. …the mind has emotions because, more often than not, they help us.

– David DeSteno, Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride

The release of David de Steno’s Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride in 2018 was an event that brought us outstanding practical advice for both daily living and the workplace. The wisdom of the book is based on sound, current behavioral and brain science, putting it in a category shared with too few self-help books.  So, although the title describes exactly what the book is about, we might be forgiven for doubting the claim before we read it. 

After reading Emotional Success you’ll understand the title’s promise is no exaggeration. For readers of this column the prominence given gratitude in both the full title and the whole text is particularly significant. The main reason, as DeSteno writes, is that gratitude is about the future, not the past. But is gratitude not the consequence of what has already happened and been observed? The author explains that while that is true, the appreciation expressed in gratitude comes from something, the actual effect of sincere gratitude is to lay the ground for a future in which others join in cooperation as their values move closer together in shared anticipation.

This is an important key as to why Grateful Leadership is so effective and contagious. The act of showing gratitude or acknowledgement frees the people appreciated from binding doubts or regrets they might be harboring. The expression of gratitude also releases grateful leaders from their own negative holdovers. The future that gratitude sparks allows both grateful leaders and individuals on the receiving end to anticipate positive relationships with real possibilities.

This experience of gratitude as both liberator from past doubt and opener of doors to a fuller future shows how valuable a resource it is, how invaluable a value it is and why in itself gratitude is a hallmark of authentic leadership. From this recognition stem the second and third emotions DeSteno writes about. Going forward, how could an authentic leader not show compassion to those already recognized through gratitude and personal acknowledgement? Will the same feelings not also be extended to others still waiting to hear heartfelt expressions of their worthiness or consolation for their misfortunes? Is this not the essence of compassion?

The third leg of success, pride, is consistent with the first two, once we read the way in which DeSteno interprets its healthy manifestation. The author appreciates that while the first two ‘success’ nurturing emotions are socially oriented, they clearly help the individual “navigate the give and take of social living.” They are both feelings that strengthen willingness to persevere, while looking forward to a meaningful future. Emotions delivering positive prospects for the future are in addition decidedly advantageous to the individual who experiences and acts upon them. Yet that seems like a fair trade-off to the community.  “But pride somehow feels different. It feels self-centered, like it’s all about me,” DeSteno concedes.

In some of its guises, pride does not cut a handsome figure. Those who have accomplished something of note and then sit back to bask in the glory of achievement, are sometimes considered arrogant, smug – proud. This reaction is one of the main reasons many absurdly wealthy people continue to labor long after material need is no longer a factor in their lives. And then of course, there is the little matter of pride being number one on the list of deadly sins.

However, as DeSteno explains, with the evolution of the conscious autonomous self, a much more positive role emerges for pride. As a driver of excellence, this emotion disciplines individuals to strive towards achievements of value to society either directly or by example. Even when others are not privy to what may be a very personal pursuit culminating in either public or private triumph, the qualities of caring, perseverance and attention to realistic goals strengthen character and entrench reliability. One caveat: if the pride taken is in something of harmful consequence, the accomplishment is negatively tainted or perverted. The brief summary of pride’s new role offered in this column might not adequately describe its moral rehabilitation, but DeSteno’s full explanation of positive pride is an important contribution to clarifying what flows from and generates genuine gratitude.

Another important hurdle the author clears early on, challenges the value of all emotions. This belief has been entrenched in our culture for centuries.

History and custom have long favored reason over passion. No surprise, as society from antiquity to modernity has been given to dangerous, horrifying displays of free rein urges from hot- tempered anger to cold blooded revenge without measurable regard for consequences. Chances of being murdered, exposed to serious harm or becoming collateral damage in state sponsored violence were once statistically significant. When philosophers, psychologists and people in general pleaded for rational control over the acting out of impulsive, unrestrained feelings, they had good reason. Despite recent disappointing setbacks, that call has been increasingly heeded.

Consequently, as academics go, David DeSteno might be pigeon-holed as a revolutionary. Here we find a highly respected academic and researcher, the former editor of the prestigious publication, “Emotion,” telling the readers of Emotional Success that both official and informal opinion about the proper relationship of thought to feeling is wrong. Not only that, he has recruited cognitive research (some of which he conducted himself) as well as newly emerging neuroscience and the best instincts of positive intuition to his side. But DeSteno’s case, though strong, is not a blanket dismissal of the role reason must continue to play. Human beings are cognitive misers; they use as little of their logic-oriented prefrontal cortex as possible when making decisions because the thinking function of the brain is seriously limited as a motivator. Hence, we develop grit to buttress what we know we must, but don’t feel like doing. When we’re tired, drained or unable to access our emotional drivers, well-reasoned grit is our pinch hitter.

Similarly, coming out of a tough stretch we must get past, we quite sensibly employ our resilience, another habit-based resource designed to carry us through. In the back of our minds we are intermittently reminded by all those voices from our youth repeating how important those monotonous rituals and decisions were that we signed on for. Right? We have ingrained habit behind us to keep us slogging onwards without balking or imagining anything different. Executive function is at the wheel and the rest of our being has been lulled into the “sleep of reason,” as the poet Blake called the assumed disability of emotional tunnel vision.

Let’s remember though, that we’re running the grit train on limited fuel. True, we can try to balance the drudgery of uphill struggle with an unfelt long- term promise in the form of privileged indulgence such as wealth, power or excessive satiation of appetite. Not to be prudish, but in themselves these rewards ultimately become disappointingly shallow. Nonetheless, such distractions may compensate for a shortfall in more meaningful results – for a time.

Emotional intelligence offers another promising series of prudent practices based on an idea promoted by social psychologist Daniel Goleman. On the face of it, most people would see little to quarrel with respecting the mindset behind the practices known as EQ. Maybe some individuals have successfully cultivated a learned ability which moderates emotional behavior in ways parallel to those that intellectual intelligence helps with problem solving. Or maybe EQ is more of a metaphor based on a brain structure theory popular in the late 20th century. 

Significant evidence does lend support to the EQ hypothesis. Some people learn how to manage their feelings and recognize what others are looking for more readily and effectively. When tested and controlled for IQ or related competencies, high EQ individuals tend to be more successful in multiple areas of life. But is this the optimum route? It turns out that like grit and resilience improving or maintaining emotional intelligence taxes cognitive capacity. As road safety requires the total attention of a new driver, sustaining EQ demands continuous vigilance.

In Emotional Excellence David DeSteno lays out two distinct ways to build character: The first imposes top down cognitive control “to overcome temptations and correct behavior.” The second is “bottom up requiring the simple feeling of specific emotions.” These specific emotions are the keystone feelings starting with gratitude that lead to more varied, complex or enriching affective experiences. Working in balance this array “automatically” generates the self-control that life requires. Society’s preference for the first way over the second route reflects a deep-set belief in an imagined sense of objectivity supposed somehow to be superior to the natural cultivation of more neurologically friendly emotions operating in a less stressful, more satisfying and conspicuously more authentic way. David DeSteno has shown us a big reason to be grateful for gratitude. We might well be grateful for his leadership.


What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection monthly and International Institute for Learning Senior Vice-President, Judith W. Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment, will help you see the possibilities.