02.01.13: The Mystery of Willpower

Willpower.  If we only had it, we wouldn’t struggle with our weight.  We wouldn’t have any bad habits, and we’d live moderate, measured, Zen, perfectly peaceful lives.  Ah, willpower.  How I hate people who have it.

I’ve written about willpower on this blog before and gone into detail about my theory that it’s not so much the strength to say “no” to something that tempts you, but that it’s a stronger “yes” in a different direction.  You’d rather feel good on the scale tomorrow than eat that donut today, that sort of thing.  Maybe that’s self-control, maybe it’s discipline, I don’t know.  I do know, however, that it’s HARD.

I heard a fascinating  interview on The Splendid Table (from American Public Media, it’s the radio show for people who love to eat … oh yes, it’s completely awesome) about Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, a new book by research psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and New York Times science columnist John Tierney.

http://www.splendidtable.org/story/the-dieters-catch-22-to-have-willpower-you-need-to-eat

Turns out, willpower (or self-control) is not only real, it’s powerful.  And it’s a “source of mental energy” that relies on glucose in your bloodstream for fuel.  So … eat!  We all instinctively know that when we’re super-hungry, we tend to make bad food decisions.  It’s because we feel like we are starving and we want whatever we can get our hands on, as fast as possible – but it’s also because a lack of blood glucose makes us more apt to fall prey to temptation.

Success in life, including making positive lifestyle changes that stick, is associated with intelligence and self-control.  They’re both pretty squishy concepts, and somewhat subjective – like, I can quote obscure lines of Shakespeare but can’t remember who fought in the Spanish-American War, am I still intelligent? – but the theories surrounding self-control and willpower, and our ability to strengthen them, are incredibly valuable to anyone who’s trying to live better and healthier.

Self-control is associated with better grades, higher salaries, lower body mass indices, stronger relationships, more empathy and emotional stability, and not going to jail.  Here’s the great news: if you were that kid who gobbled up the marshmallow at age four (read the article to learn about the experiment to which I’m referring), there’s still hope.  You can cultivate your self-control.  You aren’t overweight because you have no willpower, but stronger willpower can help you achieve your goals – weight-related and otherwise.

“ … Willpower, like a muscle, becomes fatigued from overuse but can also be strengthened over the long term through exercise.”

I love this.  Love it.  If you spend all day resisting temptation, you feel worn down, don’t you?  By evening time, you’re thinking, “ah, screw it, I’ve been good all day,” and minutes later you’re surrounded by wadded-up candy wrappers, wondering what just happened.  At the same time, you get better at saying “no, thank you” the more times you do it.  The more times you stand with your back to the buffet table at a party, the easier it gets.  You learn how to handle yourself, you learn to remind yourself that it’s just not worth it to eat two more mini-quiches when you’re not even hungry.  You recognize your negative cues and triggers, and you learn to move away.  Saying “no, thank you” becomes empowering rather than depleting.

We’re trying to succeed in the post-“if it feels good, do it” era.  Our self-control is challenged at every turn.  What’s the best way to strengthen your willpower without spraining it?  How about not putting yourself in harm’s way in the first place?  Save your stores of willpower for when you need them.  Don’t keep junk food in the house.  Don’t walk down the chips aisle at the grocery store, and give the bakery with their damn free cookies a wide berth.  Don’t deprive yourself entirely of delicious and naughty things, but save the good stuff for when it’s really good, and it really matters.

We don’t keep junk food in the house, but we do keep wine and beer.  And I have found that if the wine bottle isn’t open, and if the beer is ugh, all the way downstairs in the downstairs fridge, I just don’t have any.  It’s true.  In this one case, lazy is good.  It’s silly, but I’ll take it, and it gets easier and easier to say “no, thank you.”

The full introduction to Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength is here:

http://www.splendidtable.org/story/willpower-rediscovering-greatest-human-strength

Today is Square One, my friends.  A new day to get stronger and healthier!

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