San Francisco Public Radio did a lovely 1-hr show on the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. The piece features the founder of CCARE, the scientists who are studying compassion, as well as one of my compassion cultivation courses, and stories from students in it.

You can download or stream the audio story here, or read the transcript here.

Below is one of my favorite excerpts:

Deborah Defilippo heard about CCARE when she attended the 2010 discussion between scientists and the Dalai Lama. Researchers talked about the health benefits of meditation.

“I am, I guess you could say I’m a type A, high achieving person,” DeFilippo says. “And I’m now catching myself when someone in front of me is driving below the speed limit, saying the phrases that are in almost every single meditation practice that Kelly has. And that is, you say for each individual and yourself and the world, ‘May you be happy. May you be free from pain and suffering. And may you experience joy and peace.’ …It’s like taking a deep breath and a lot of calm does instill within me.”

Stanford’s CCARE program has its critics. Some worry this type of secular practice will lose something, and perhaps lack substance. Others say the aspirations of CCARE – to make a more compassionate world  — are too idealistic. They question how much students can learn in nine weeks.

But McGonigal says many students do connect what’s taught by CCARE with what’s occurring in their lives.

“One of my favorite stories was a man who was in a church setting and a homeless woman had approached this group that was meeting at the church…. And he could feel in himself that little bit of threat or stress arising that would normally have led him to maybe get rid of that person as quickly as possible so that she didn’t disturb the group that was meeting.”

The man remembered a lesson from the previous week in class.

“He considered the other ways of thinking about her,” McGonigal said. “That, just like him, she was human. She was suffering. Going down the checklist, does this person need help? Do I have the resources to help? And turns out that she had diabetes and she needed food and there wasn’t food available in that moment and the people in the group were able to get her something to eat and the whole thing ended very differently because he was using this framework from the study that we talked about … People can take something from a study and use it in everyday life.”

– Narrated by Judy Silber for San Francisco Public Radio. You can download or stream the audio story here, or read the entire transcript here.

I’m excited to announce the release of my latest audiobook, which presents six live lectures and twelve guided self-reflection and mediation practices. The Neuroscience of Change: A Compassion-Based Guide to Personal Transformation (Sounds True) integrates the most exciting scientific findings about how the mind works with the wisdom of mind-body traditions like yoga and Buddhism. It deepens some of the most important ideas from The Willpower Instinct (Avery 2012), including the importance of mindfulness, self-compassion, and acceptance for change. The program also provides practical support to help you explore and embody these qualities through breathing, meditation, and relaxation practices.

You can order the 6-CD set OR download the program in MP3 format at Sounds True.

Or order the 6-CD set from any major bookseller, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, Chapters (Canada), and Indie Bound.

Program Description

Personal Transformation Based on Mindfulness and Self-Compassion

What’s your most important goal? Why does it matter so deeply? How will you overcome the obstacles? Answer these questions with sincerity, proceed with mindfulness and compassion, and you have just set in motion a revolutionary method for personal change that is supported by both the latest science and traditional wisdom. On The Neuroscience of Change, psychologist and award-winning Stanford lecturer Kelly McGonigal presents six sessions of breakthrough ideas, guided practices, and real-world exercises for making self-awareness and kindness the basis for meaningful transformation.

Practical Methods to Retrain Your Brain to Support Your Goals

Our understanding of the incredible power of the human brain is at an all-time high, with the emerging fields of neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and psychophysiology opening new possibilities for greater health, happiness, and freedom from suffering. Drawing on her training as a research scientist and longtime practitioner of meditation and yoga, Dr. McGonigal reveals these startling findings, including the clinically supported methods for training the mind away from default states that no longer serve us, and establishing behaviors and attitudes aligned with our highest values and aspirations.

The First Rule of Change: It’s Already Happening

As the world’s wisdom traditions teach and science is now verifying, our lives are in fact defined by constant change. Whether you’re looking to change a behavior, improve your health or other circumstances, or simply for a way to bring hope and resilience into your life as it is, The Neuroscience of Change will help you trust yourself and unfold your true capacities for personal transformation.


  • Willingness, self-awareness, and surrender—how to nourish the seeds of change
  • Focusing on the process, not the outcome
  • How to overcome the “trigger-to-instinct” reaction
  • The proven benefits of meditation—and how to start practicing yourself
  • How to transform self-criticism into self-compassion
  • Why your mind creates habits-and how to consciously create new ones
  • Making values-driven commitments
  • Visualization and the principle of “encoding prospective memories”
  • The power of the vow
  • “Deep activation” and the danger of rejecting what is
  • Working with inner experiences as the key to making outward change
  • Six hours of breakthrough science, practical wisdom, guided exercises, and mindfulness meditations for making positive change that lasts

You can order the 6-CD set OR download the complete set at Sounds True.

Or order the 6-CD set from any major bookseller, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, Chapters (Canada), and Indie Bound.

In this 1-hour webisode of the tv show “Dr. Kiki’s Science Hour“, Dr. Kirsten Sanford and Dr. Kelly McGonigal discuss the science of self-control, why and how to become a “willpower scientist” in your own life, and what the latest research says about parenting strategies, behavior change, and motivation.

Watch via the link below, or download the audio or video for your ipod/phone/computer.

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 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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