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Are people with more self-discipline happier?

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

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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A neural crêpe

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So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

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