The elusive forces behind a person’s ability to exercise willpower have been the subject of increasing scrutiny by the scientific community. Behavioral scientists have been trying to understand why people have so much trouble overcoming bad habits like laziness and procrastination and addictions such as smoking, excessive eating, and abuse of drugs and alcohol. One aspect of overcoming these habits or addictions includes the use of willpower and self-discipline. They make a great difference in everyone’s life, and bring one a sense of inner strength, self-mastery and decisiveness.
Remez Sasson, the author of “Will Power and Self Discipline” makes a distinction between those two terms. He defines willpower as the ability to control unnecessary and harmful impulses. It is the inner power that overcomes the desire to indulge in unnecessary and useless habits, and the inner strength that overcomes inner emotional and mental resistance for taking action. It is one of the corner stones of success, both spiritual and material.
Self-discipline is the companion of willpower. It endows the stamina to persevere in whatever one does and provides the ability to withstand hardships and difficulties, whether physical, emotional, or mental. It grants the ability to reject immediate satisfaction for something better.
I have observed that most people, including writers and researchers on this subject, use the terms willpower, self-discipline, and self-control interchangeably…and so will I.
Some suggest that the term willpower is a negative concept, like Lori Feldman, a psychiatrist, who, like many others prefers the term motivation. Addiction counselors say the concept is counterproductive. It makes people blame themselves, damaging their self-esteem, and poor self-esteem weakens their resolve.
Charles E. Henderson, Ph.D., a researcher and psychologist, takes it even further. He claims that the notion of willpower is an outmoded concept that just causes everyone a lot of anguish and, therefore, should be trashed. He says the use of this term pits the conscious mind against the subconscious mind and, in any such conflict, the subconscious will always triumph, therefore the concept of willpower is meaningless. How does so-called willpower work if a person who uses willpower to quit smoking, for example, then goes and gains weight afterwards? If he really used willpower to quit smoking, Henderson argues, why it would not also be available to control his eating behavior and anything else he wanted to achieve. Therefore, he concludes, willpower is a cruel hoax because it makes those of us who don’t seem to have it feel inadequate.
Recent research findings conclude that willpower is a mental muscle and certain physical and mental forces can weaken or strengthen our self-control. If, as it seems, it is like a muscle, then it has the capacity to tire, like any other muscle in the mind-body system. In a recent experiment, Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University, had two groups of people skip a meal. Then he put them in a room with plates of cookies and plates of radishes. Some were allowed to eat cookies. Others had to eat radishes. Later, both groups were given a tedious, exacting task (tracing a complex maze) and told to keep at it as long as they could. The cookie eaters generally lasted 18 minutes. Those who had been eating radishes (that is, resisting temptation) lasted about nine minutes. Their willpower, it seems, was exhausted.
So if willpower is like a muscle, can it be strengthened? Many researchers say yes. There is even a willpower-training program run by a psychologist at the Carolina Wellness Center. Baumeister and others say that to strengthen your willpower or self-control, you have to exercise it. He recommends that we practice by testing ourselves on small tasks so as to avoid the possibility of failure by taking on too much, too quickly. People who were instructed for two weeks to make small changes like improving their posture or brushing their teeth with their opposite hand improved their scores on laboratory tests of self-control. A vow to stop swearing, to make the bed every day or to give up one food may be a way to strengthen one’s self-control, giving you more willpower reserves for bigger challenges later. And, it seems, exercising willpower in one area positively impacts the ability to exercise it in other areas. People who stuck to an exercise program for two months reported reducing their impulsive spending, junk food intake, alcohol use, and smoking. They also studied more, watched less television, and did more housework.
No one seems to know exactly why willpower can grow with practice, but it might reflect some biological change in the brain. Whatever the explanation, consistently doing any activity that requires self-control seems to increase willpower – and the ability to resist impulses and delay gratification is highly associated with success in life.