What Goes on in Your Brain and How to Influence It

My brother Mark needed to tie down the tarp on a wood cabinet in the back of a pickup. He struggled with this because a stroke left his right side paralyzed.

“Let me help,” I said.

Fiercely independent, Mark glared at me and shouted, “No!”

My first instinct was to yell back.

Friends have complimented me on my patience. A good definition is “the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset.” I’ve never seen myself that way. So I decided to do a little research.

Patience and Rewards

Katsuhiko Miyazaki at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology studied “the patience effect”: how long we’ll wait for delayed gratification. Miyazaki discovered that there’s a connection between the neurotransmitter serotonin (associated with feelings of wellbeing and happiness) and patience.

Animals with higher levels of this chemical in their brain were more likely to be patient. Those with lower amounts were more impulsive.

Before you run out and buy some, know this. The patience of the mice Miyazaki studied only lasted if they believed it would be rewarded at least 75% of the time. (For them, this meant receiving food within 10 seconds rather than immediately.) In cases where they didn’t receive any food, no amount of serotonin would make them more patient.

Patience, Willpower and Imagination

Can you will yourself to be more patient? Willpower is “the ability to control one’s actions, emotions or urges.” Studies by Adrianna Jenkins and Ming Hsu at the University of California Berkeley indicate willpower has a negative bent: it prevents you from doing something or forces you to do something else. Both of which are depleting and less easy to stick with over time.

Imagining the outcome of a choice, however, is much more motivating. When people were able to paint a picture of some positive future because of an action they did or didn’t take, they were more likely to follow through—delaying gratification and even feeling good about it.

Summarizing the Science of Patience

Now you know two important strategies to help promote patience:

  1. You (and everyone) are more likely to be patient when there’s a reward involved (and it doesn’t take too long to see it)
  2. Inviting people to imagine the positive outcome of a choice helps them follow through and feel good about it

To that I add two more strategies—because they work for me.

Patience, My Brother and Me

Instead of lipping off, I used my first strategy: the “brown thought cloud.” I sarcastically muttered in my head all of the things I wanted to shout at Mark:

“Boo-hoo, you’re truly punishing me by not letting me help you! Because I really—Really—REALLY want to climb up in the back of this truck, bruise my knees and shins on the corrugated metal floor and sides, strain my back and arms by lifting this heavy piece of furniture by myself, and risk dropping it on my toes!”

Instead I said, “Of course you could do this on your own. But it’s 97 degrees out here, and with two of us it will take less time.”

Since moods are contagious, he was able to pick up my calmness. We worked together to secure the tarp and cabinet.

“Playing the long game” is my second strategy. I ask, “What do I really want to have happen?” Then I weigh my words and behavior to see if they’re getting me closer to or further from that.

With Mark, my goal was to make sure this cabinet—which he had built as a fine furniture maker before his stroke—got safely to its destination. If it had been gouged and damaged while reaching its new home, that would have diminished his artistry and joy in creating it. We needed to preserve his accomplishment.

Yelling wouldn’t help. Neither would telling him he couldn’t do this on his own. Or storming off and letting him handle it. As long as I knew why I was there, then I could do things to increase the chances that would happen.

So, no, I’m not a particularly patient person. You don’t have to be, either. But it sure helps to understand what promotes and dissolves patience. And choose what makes it easier for you and your people to have more when it’s needed.