Why self-control makes your life better, and how to get more of it.
(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.
However, this might be a misconception with drastic implications.<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xODYyOTU3Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDk1NDU0MH0.U5DEamTbKxetex8uOBkoyoPu4mKwvVVu7wbOWC59qpc/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C302%2C0%2C302&height=700" id="bdbe6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3f67fa142bc3555cd0db81481ccb8b26" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
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)<p>In 2013, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jopy.12050" target="_blank">a study</a> by <a href="https://newfaculty.uchicago.edu/page/wilhelm-hofmann" target="_blank">professor William Hofmann</a> and others was published in the <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/14676494" target="_blank"><em>Journal of Personality</em> </a>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>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. </p><p>So much for the idea that self-control makes you unhappy.</p>
What does this all mean?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6e04a60190c8e441e688fb169b788038"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/NelIXCuuSZ0?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>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." </p><p>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. </p>
What can I do to help improve my self-control today?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e24c9b60bf3d4e4fd077c5a60cb7bedd"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/u7Y0Q0DLQDs?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>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:</p><blockquote style="margin-left: 20px;"><br>"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."<br></blockquote><p>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.</p><p>Another idea is to view <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/science-choice/201703/10-strategies-developing-self-control" target="_blank">self-control </a>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 <a href="http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674013575&content=reviews" target="_blank">Howard Rachlin</a>, this will make good choices easier to make.</p><p>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.</p>
It's all in your mind. Really. Everything bad in the world might be coming from one particular part of the human brain.
Ever hear the expression "it's all in your mind"? Well, according to Robert Sapolsky all the negativity in the world might all be coming from one part of the brain: the frontal cortex. The science of temptation runs parallel to the science of why people make "bad" decisions. Sapolsky talks about how active the frontal cortex can be in some people when they have the opportunity to do a bad thing... and how calm it can be in other people when presented with a similar situation. Performing full-frontal lobotomies on the world's population to rid the world of negativity isn't exactly in the cards—but understanding the basis of the world's problems on a scientific (not to mention cranial level) might help make future generations much more adept at stopping humanity's biggest mistakes. Robert Sapolsky's most recent book is Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.
Your willpower is a muscle that can be trained. Here is a wealth of scientific information to help you understand your behavior and engineer a successful health and weight-loss plan.
Willpower is one of the most elusive qualities to get a handle on, but according to Dr Sylvia Tara, biochemist and author of The Secret Life of Fat, your willpower can be trained like a muscle. We have all sorts of medical interventions for weight loss and new procedures on the horizon, but there is always a risk-benefit trade off to these measures. What we have here and now, she says, is diet and exercise. These work best of all, the only hurdle in your way is changing your behavioral patterns to embrace them. Here, Tara presents a list of ways to apply what we’ve learnt from psychological studies towards your fitness and health goals – from temptation bundling, to reward schemes and just getting past the two weeks it takes to form a good habit – or break a bad one. Sylvia Tara is the author of The Secret Life of Fat: The Science Behind the Body's Least Understood Organ and What It Means for You.