Are people with more self-discipline happier?

Why self-control makes your life better, and how to get more of it.

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Buddhist monks of all nations mediate in Thailand. Monks are well known for their self-discipline and restrictive lifestyle. Is it possible that this leads them to happiness?
(Photo by Geem Drake/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
  • Research demonstrates that people with higher levels of self-control are happier over both the short and long run.
  • Higher levels of self-control are correlated with educational, occupational, and social success.
  • It was found that the people with the greatest levels of self-control avoid temptation rather than resist it at every turn.

Self-discipline seems like a devil's bargain. A trade that allows you to get more done over the long run at the price of not being able to enjoy yourself with indulgences today. When we think of people who take this deal, we imagine puritanical killjoys who get considerable work done at the cost of never having fun. Fostering high levels of self-control can seem like a distant goal with little more than a moral payoff.

However, this might be a misconception with drastic implications. 

The puritans, masters of self-denial and hard work. Is the idea that people who trade fun for achievement by means of self-control suffer true? (Getty Images/engraving by Richard Taylor from The Illustrated London News)

In 2013, a study by professor William Hofmann and others was published in the Journal of Personality focusing on the relationship between happiness and self-control. Defining self-control as, "the ability to override or change one's inner responses, as well as interrupt undesired behavioral tendencies (such as impulses) and refrain from acting on them," the researchers hoped to find out if our stereotype of the miserable self-disciplined puritan was true or not.

The study consisted of three experiments designed to see how happiness was affected by the trait of self-control (TSC) over both the short and long run. The first test had 414 test subjects deciding how well certain statements described them (e.g. "I do certain things that are bad for me, if they are fun") and then filling out a report explaining how happy they were at that moment and how satisfied they were with their lives overall.

The subjects' responses hinted at a correlation between not only self-control and life satisfaction, but also between self-control and "positive affect," which includes positive emotions, sentiments, and experiences experienced on a daily basis.

So much for the idea that self-control makes you unhappy.

Practicing self-control can lead not only to greater long-term fulfillment, but also less daily stress. Photo by Thao Le Hoang via Unsplash

The second experiment, which had fewer participants, had the test subjects carry around specially programmed smartphones which would ask them questions at random times to determine if they were currently experiencing a desire. If they answered "yes" more questions would follow. These questions focused on the details of the desire, how intense it was, if the subject acted on it, if that desire conflicted with another goal they had, and how much stress it caused them.

The results reinforced the notion that "people with higher TSC had more positive and fewer negative emotions overall." Inspired by the related finding that the desire-goal conflict leads to substantial stress in people with low self-control, researchers investigated the phenomenon further with a third experiment.

The last test asked participants to answer questions about three regular goal-desire conflicts in their lives. The questions included inquiries into how severe the conflicts were, how often they occurred, and the morality of the choices available to them. They were then asked to fill out a survey on their life satisfaction and self-control tendencies.

The results surprised the researchers, as people with higher levels of self-control reported fewer desire-goal conflicts overall than those with lower self-control. The conflicts they did face were also less likely to be conflicts of choosing a virtuous option or an enjoyable vice. It was also found that when the conflicts did arise, people with higher self-control were better at choosing the better option than those with lower self-control, as one might expect.

What does this all mean?

Each test showed that people with higher levels of self-control were not only more satisfied with life overall, but also had more positive emotions on a day to day basis. As the authors of the study phrased it: "high self-control does make you happy."

While the types of happiness that people with high levels of self-control experience might be different from the kinds that people with low self-control experience, the long run results are clear. Self-control helps lead to a more satisfying life.

What can I do to help improve my self-control today?

One thing that might seem counter-intuitive is to remove temptations from your life. While the test subjects with higher TSC were presumably able to resist temptation better than others, they also reported fewer incidents where anything tempted them. The authors suggest that:


"It is presumably impossible to organize one's life so that goals never conflict. (Sure enough, none of our participants said they never experienced goal conflicts, or balked at listing three recurrent ones.) But someone with good self-control can apparently manage his or her life so that these conflicts arise relatively infrequently. These findings provide further support for the view that good self-control facilitates managing one's life so as to avoid and minimize problems."

Try removing distractions from your work space, getting rid of the fattening food in your cabinet, or not walking past the impulse purchase items rather than try to resist the urge to procrastinate, eat poorly, or buy things you don't indefinitely.

Another idea is to view self-control as a choice of a pattern of behavior rather than as a series of decisions for separate actions. Rather than seeing your decision not to smoke as one event, view it as part of the pattern you have chosen- you are a person who does not smoke. According to professor Howard Rachlin, this will make good choices easier to make.

Our idea of self-disciplined people as self-denying and unhappy is false; they're happier than the rest of us. By better avoiding impulses, choosing virtue over vice, and balancing their desires and goals, they have more good moods and higher levels of life satisfaction. Anybody can improve their self-control by taking simple steps today.


Iron Age discoveries uncovered outside London, including a ‘murder’ victim

A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.

Photo Credit: HS2
Culture & Religion
  • A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
  • The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
  • An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
  • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
  • Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
  • The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
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