Sunday 1 February 2015

Control yourself!

New research claims you can teach yourself to resist your hedonistic impulses and harness your willpower, says Suzanne Harrington

How's your willpower -- iron-clad? Be honest now. Can you resist temptation when it's right under your nose? When you set yourself goals, do you see them through, or are they as useless as a list of New Year's resolutions?

Do you procrastinate? Get side-tracked? Regularly fall off all kinds of wagons?

Or are you with the YOLOs (you only live once), and think the whole idea of willpower and self-control is a lot of control-freak miserablism?

A new book, by social psychologist Roy F Baumeister and 'New York Times' science writer John Tierney, presents willpower as a basic necessity.

'Willpower: Why Self-Control is the Secret of Success' talks us through the importance of having it and how, without it, our desires overcome us, no matter how good our intentions.

Darwin, writing in 'The Descent of Man', said: "The highest possible state in moral culture is when we recognise that we ought to control our thoughts."

Some people are brilliant at this, and, by controlling their thoughts, control their actions too.

We all know these people -- rigorously disciplined in their food intake, one-small-glass-of-whatever types who when they say they are getting up every day at 6am to go running, actually do it.

People with ingrained willpower can be both mysterious and envy-inducing. And it is ingrained.

According to Baumeister and Tierney, willpower and self-control are largely determined by our genes.

Think of those kids in Walter Mischel's marshmallow experiment, in which small children were offered one marshmallow immediately or two marshmallows if they waited 15 minutes.

The ones who waited had not read any books about willpower, but had an innate ability to distract themselves and were rewarded for their delayed gratification.

What is interesting is that the kids who showed the most willpower aged four went on to achieve better grades, were more popular with peers and teachers, earned more as adults, and had fewer problems with drug misuse and weight gain.

"Self-regulation failure is the major social pathology of our time," concluded Baumeister in an earlier book, 'Losing Control'.

Without it, we're fatter, drunker, higher with greater rates of divorce and criminality.

"People with good self-control seemed especially good at forming and maintaining secure, satisfying attachments to other people," writes Tierney.

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