To win, exercise willpower, says top psychologist

From hitting snooze to eating fatty foods, most people have temptations they find hard to resist. Now a new book says our willpower is like a muscle that we can train.

Stop slouching! If you believe psychologist Roy Baumeister, there’s more at stake than a healthy spine. His new book claims that teaching ourselves self-control in such small matters can lead to fitter, fuller, happier lives.

In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Baumeister and his co-author John Tierney argue that the will is not an abstract concept, but a physical part of the brain. Some may be born with more will than others but, like a muscle, will can be trained. It thrives on glucose and a fresh, well-rested mind; but, again like a muscle, it gets tired if overused.

As long ago as 1972, a famous study vividly showed the effort it takes to exercise will. In the ‘Marshmallow Experiment’, children were forced to fight against sugary temptation in the form of a marshmallow, knowing that self-restraint then would bring the grand reward of a second sweet later. The intensity of their struggle astonished experimenters.

What is more, the struggle matters. In later life the children who resisted temptation tended to achieve longer friendships, better exam results and more stable lives than their peers. Baumeister believes that the ability to override instincts like overeating or slacking off is the best tool we humans have to mould our lives – perhaps even the only one.

Self-control has, in the past, been celebrated by several different strands in Western thought. The importance of resisting sin is at the heart of Christianity; Victorians believed that their empire was built on the ‘stiff upper lip’; Friedrich Nietzsche, a wild German philosopher who despised Christian morals, believed that all human behaviour was driven by the ‘will to power’.

But with its thousand television programmes, social networking sites and sugary foods, the modern age offers a richer array of temptations than any other: our feeble wills are horribly over-worked. One recent study found that most people are now unable to concentrate for long enough to read a single page of text without being distracted.

So if you got this far, congratulations. Now stop slouching.

Triumph of the will

Baumeister and Tierney say that a firm will gives us control over our lives. Without it we would be lazy, fat and unfulfilled – miserable slaves to the tiniest urges. Self-control, they say, is what separates humans from beasts: it should be our most cherished possession.

Others question this view. How can we ever be happy, they ask, if we deny ourselves the things we really want? The idea that we ought to repress our needs and desires only brings us suffering – that second marshmallow is rarely worth the pain we endure to resist the first.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather have a good thing now or more of a good thing later?
  2. Is it good to have a ‘stiff upper lip’?

Activities

  1. Design a mental exercise to help strengthen willpower.
  2. Write a short story in which somebody struggles to resist a powerful temptation.

Some People Say...

“Nothing is more fun than giving in to temptation.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So how exactly do you train your will?
Some of the solutions Baumeister and Tierney suggest are surprisingly simple: eat well, sleep well, stay away from temptation. They point out that crash diets sap our will by depriving us of the energy we need to resist fatty foods. Regular exercises such as delaying treats or limiting visits to favourite websites help – as do ancient methods like meditation.
Does this mean anybody can tame their urges?
IfWillpower is to be believed, almost anybody can – although its authors accept that genes make it easier for some people than others. Some people have a strong will, but are unable to resist particular urges: alcoholism is a good example of this, often affecting otherwise disciplined people. Similarly, overeating is sometimes caused by a hormone imbalance.

Word Watch

The will
In philosophy, a ‘will’ often refers to a person’s purpose or desire. Many ancient thinkers believed that each object had its own will, a goal that it was struggling to achieve. Religious people often say that everything in the world is dictated by the ‘will’ of God; but nowadays willpower more commonly means struggling against desires rather than struggling to fulfil them.
Glucose
Glucose is a common type of sugar – the basic fuel of the human body. There are many other kinds of sugar, however, which can be spotted by their ‘-ose’ ending, e.g. fructose (in fruit) or lactose (in milk).
At the heart of Christianity
Christians believe that the first humans, Adam and Eve, were kicked out of heaven after being tempted by the devil to disobey God’s command. So the inability to resist sin is the first and greatest human weakness, responsible for all our suffering.
Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the most influential thinkers of the 19th Century. At a time when philosophers tended to be rational and dry, Nietzsche’s books were eloquent, furious rants against his society and his predecessors. He believed that the will to power was the only real truth, and that all philosophy since the coming of Christianity was based on a mistake.

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