Three Studies Find Ways to Get an Extra Boost of Willpower & Self-Control

Our ability to use self-control may be one of the most important things we can develop in ourselves. I’ve written before about how willpower is not enough and that developing habits is an important skill for sustaining the right behaviors.

But there’s more to the story.

In preparing to teach a course about willpower and behavior change, I uncovered new research revealing ways we can get an extra boost of self-control when we are running low. Here are some of the findings:

Choosing to exert self-control is less depleting than being forced to exert it

Mark Muraven, a Professor at the University at Albany, asked participants to resist eating a batch of cookies and tested them on an activity that required willpower both before and after resisting the cookies. Afterward, he asked participants their motivations for resisting the cookies and also examined their performance on the willpower test.

He bucketed the reasons into autonomous ones (e.g. “It was important to me not to eat them” or”It is fun to challenge myself not to eat them”) and external (e.g. “I wanted the experimenter to like me” or “I would feel guilty if I ate them”). In looking at the results (emphasis added)

“As compared to their baseline performance, participants who avoided eating the cookies for more autonomous performed better at the second measure relative to participants who did not eat for more extrinsic reasons. Mood, arousal, and demographic factors were not related to self-control performance and feelings of autonomy. Overall, it appears that feeling compelled to exert self-control may deplete more strength than having more freedom when exerting self-control.” [Muraven, Journal of Research in Personality, 2008]

So next time you’re faced with something that requires willpower, whether it’s staying late to finish a project or turning down that second slice of birthday cake, find a personally compelling reason to exert willpower, rather than placing the reason to something external. Continue reading…

What Are You Grateful For?

Photo Credit: SuperDewa

People who spend time counting their blessings are happier than people who thinking about their troubles. That makes intuitive sense, but it’s also been demonstrated by real academic research.

Researchers at UC Davis and University of Miami split a group of roughly 200 people into 3 groups – each was asked to fill out a weekly report about events that had happened that they were grateful for or found to be a hassle. A third group, the control, was simply asked to note “life events”. The report also asked participants to describe their mood, attitude toward life and other measures of well-being.

The results: gratefulness leads to happiness, health and more exercise!

There was a significant main effect for the ratings of one’s life as a whole and expectations concerning the upcoming week: Participants in the gratitude group rated their life more favorablyon these two items than did participants in the hassles group or events group. The gratitude-group participants experienced fewer symptoms of physical illness than those in either of the other two groups. … People in the gratitude condition spent significantly more time exercising (nearly 1.5 hr more per week) than those in the hassles condition.

Emmons, McCollough 2003 (full-text link)

Living the Research

The thing is, most people have things they are grateful for, but they don’t take the time to express them (unlike their hassles, which they are happy to express as complaints =D) You almost need to build a habit of expressing gratitude to really have this gratitude effect work for your happiness.

I keep a four-line, ten-year journal and every night, I use one of the four lines to write down something I’m grateful for every day. Usually it’s something mundane like “Had a nice conversation with mom today.” or “Completed my mail-in ballot early – proud to be an voter.” It’s a great way to count my blessings on a regular basis.

One thing I know I can do better is communicating my gratitude to the people I care about. I think we worry it might seem cheesy or fake, but those small appreciations can mean a lot.

So I ask you:

What are you grateful for? And how do you express it?