Are people with more self-discipline happier?

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

  • 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.


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  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
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  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.