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.


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7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

Nero's Torches. A group of early Christian martyrs about to be burned alive during the reign of emperor Nero in 64 AD.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
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  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

He died by suicide.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

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