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“Willpower”
An Excerpt from Life on Purpose: How Living for What Matters Most Changes Everything by Victor J. Strecher

You might have seen the “marshmallow test”—a test of delayed gratification and willpower. An adult brings a young child into a room and gives them a marshmallow, telling the child that they could eat the marshmallow right away, but if they wait, they’ll get two marshmallows. As you might imagine, the temptation drives the kids nearly insane and some simply cannot hold out. They smell the marshmallow. They try to divert their attention, but you can tell that they can’t get the marshmallow out of their heads! The children look like they’re in physical pain.

The ability of preschoolers to control themselves, it turns out, predicts their likelihood of being overweight or obese thirty years later. Low willpower in childhood predicts adolescent smoking, school dropout, and teen parenthood. It also predicts a prediabetic condition known as “metabolic disorder” in adults, as well as substance abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, and even economic problems.

These demonstrations of the extraordinary stability of willpower over time are depressing to many behavioral scientists who try to help people make changes in their lives. Since eudaimonic well-being requires the willpower to align, and regularly re-align, with one’s purpose, these findings are also relevant to us. How can we expect dynamic alignment with purpose when our will has been conditioned since childhood?

First, let’s break some popular misconceptions about willpower.

SMOKING AND THE BEAR

Changing your behavior is hard. Changing your smoking behavior is really hard. Sigmund Freud had thirty operations for mouth cancer due to his cigar addiction. After his doctor strictly forbade further smoking, he wrote back, “I have not smoked for seven weeks since the day of your injunction. At first I felt, as expected, outrageously bad. Cardiac symptoms accompanied by mild depression, as well as the horrible misery of abstinence. These wore off but left me completely incapable of working, a beaten man. After seven weeks I began smoking again.”

One of the big issues in quitting smoking is temptation resulting from thoughts of cigarettes. The more that would-be quitters think about not thinking about them, the more they do. In psychology, this is called the “white bear” effect, from a phrase in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Winter Notes on Summer Impressions: “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”

In the 1984 movie Ghostbusters, our heroes were asked to refrain from thinking about the form in which the malevolent spirit Gozer would come. One of the Ghostbusters, Ray, couldn’t help himself, and Gozer came to destroy the earth as the giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Man (perhaps in tribute to the marshmallow test). The ability to suppress thoughts of an object—a marshmallow, a cigarette, or a polar bear—requires willpower.

For my doctoral dissertation in the early 1980s, I worked in a Veterans Administration (VA) hospital helping veterans quit smoking. At that time most of them smoked, and most said they wanted to quit but couldn’t. I heard a lot of variations on “Well, it just takes willpower to quit—and I don’t have any.”

Many of the veterans had difficult lives, including addiction to other substances, and I wasn’t at all sure I could do much to help. Working against me was the then-common notion that willpower was something you either were or weren’t born with . . . and my vets weren’t. They were telling me that as kids, they would have failed the marshmallow test.

John Wayne had willpower. Humphrey Bogart had willpower. These two icons of strength and courage were heroes to the World War II and Korean War vets at the hospital. And both Wayne and Bogart died from cigarette smoking. Even when Bogie was down to eighty pounds and breathing from an oxygen tank, he continued to puff away. Pure oxygen is a fire hazard (because it combines so quickly with many fuels), and smoking around an oxygen tank can lead to a huge explosion.

As I started working at the VA hospital, clinicians told me that patients were allowed to smoke in their rooms. The lung cancer and emphysema patients were often, like Bogie, breathing from oxygen tanks, so to avoid explosions, nurses would take long plastic tubing, stretch it outside of the room, insert a cigarette, and light it for them. As I said, quitting smoking is really hard.

So how to help? Until recently, the thinking among behavioral scientists was that even using the term willpower should be avoided at all costs. If willpower couldn’t be changed, then every attempt should be made to “reattribute” the factors of success—from an unchangeable factor such as willpower to changeable factors such as learnable quitting skills.

Willpower also had negative connotations for many social scientists, because lacking it was seen to imply weakness. This victim-blaming implication, combined with the idea that willpower was more or less innate, kept the term in the closet for decades. Even one of the modern fathers of willpower research, Roy Baumeister, wrote that “the very notion that people can consciously control themselves has traditionally been viewed suspiciously by psychologists.”

Unfortunately for the social scientists, everyone else still used the term, so they had a hard time making it unpopular—possibly because it was real. Then some brave researchers, including Baumeister, started looking at willpower through a new lens. The big question facing them was whether willpower could be changed.

WILLPOWER AS A MUSCLE

Trials similar to the marshmallow test are also given to adults. Sitting up straight, speaking only in full sentences, refraining from swearing, or declining something tempting takes willpower. But psychologists have found that willpower acts in a similar manner to a muscle: It can be depleted after mental exertion, it can be strengthened, and it can be fueled.

Willpower can be depleted when one’s ego is threatened—for example, by being berated or excluded. The ego threat requires mental exertion to reduce threat.

Are you a sports fan? How do you feel when your team wins? When they lose? Fans tend to connect their identities with their team. (Remember, the word is short for “fanatic.”) It’s not “They won”; it’s “We won.” You’re the “sixth person” on the basketball team. Your identity and your ego are involved in every game your team wins or loses.

French researchers Yann Cornil and Pierre Chandon found, amazingly, that a community’s average saturated fat consumption dropped by 9 percent on the Monday following a win on Sunday by their National Football League (NFL) team, and that a loss resulted in a 16 percent increase. And this result was measured across the entire community; the effect on hard-core fans would likely be even higher. (Imagine the class-action lawsuit against the NFL team: “You made us fat because you suck!”)

Willpower-depleting mental exertion is also required when we’re trying to remember something. In a Stanford University study, students were given either a two- or seven-digit number. They were then instructed to walk down the hall to another room, where they’d be asked to recall the number. In the hallway they were offered a snack: either fruit or chocolate cake. Fifty-nine percent of the students trying to remember a two-digit number chose the fruit, while only 27 percent of the students trying to remember the seven-digit number chose the fruit. Remembering the longer number required more mental exertion, and by the time the cake showed up, their willpower was depleted.

Consider the times when you have low willpower. Are you upset because your ego has been threatened through an argument with someone, a difficult discussion with your boss, or the loss of a team you identify with? Are you mentally exerting yourself? Have you been working too hard, overwhelmed by the challenges you face, having to keep too many things in your head? These events all cause a loss of willpower.

But what if you always have too many things in your head? What if you’re just “hyper”?

HYPERACTIVITY AND WILLPOWER

We all know people who have a lot of energy but little or no willpower. Like a boat without a rudder, they can’t maintain a course. Our society has a label for these people: annoying. The medical profession has other labels, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or Tourette’s syndrome (TS).

I was diagnosed as a child with TS. You might have heard of this condition—popularized by people who involuntarily shout obscenities in public places. This particular manifestation of TS is, thankfully, rare. My own version involved tics such as jerking my head, twitching muscles in my hands or face, or grunting, among other more creative elaborations. I also had a million thoughts racing through my head.

In the 1960s this condition wasn’t well understood, and other than the occasional sadist (such as an unnamed second-grade teacher who’d make me wash my mouth out with soap or sit in a trash can for hours, in front of the whole class), adults would remark that I was “hyperactive” or, more generously, “had a lot of energy.” In truth, I was annoying to others, and I could understand why. I was annoying to myself.

My body was a boat with sails unfurled on a windy day . . . but with no harbor and no rudder. Many adults simply thought I lacked the necessary willpower to stop the tics. “Just try not to twitch!” “Don’t talk!” “Don’t move!” Of course, trying not to do or even think about these things made it impossible not to.

The grown-up solution for my apparent lack of willpower, often the solution for children with ADHD and OCD, was medications. But they acted like an anchor to my sailboat. Even worse than sailing around with no rudder was being dead in the water.

In his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, the late, great neurologist Oliver Sacks tells of a patient with Tourette’s who was a weekend jazz drummer “of real virtuosity, famous for his sudden and wild extemporizations, which would arise from a tic or a compulsive hitting of a drum and would instantly be made the nucleus of a wild and wonderful improvisation.” Tourette’s made him annoying; but it also made him a great jazz drummer. When Sacks gave him a drug to control the Tourette’s, it quickly spelled the end to his tics . . . and to his brilliance. The drummer decided to stop taking the drug on weekends, and the jazz world was the better for it.

My parents saw a similar effect with me (my father had been a jazz musician himself) and, inspiring my eternal gratitude, let me twitch away. A more modern understanding of Tourette’s syndrome finds that children with this condition are often massively creative. Howard Hughes, Dan Aykroyd, David Beckham, Samuel Johnson, and possibly Mozart all have or had it.

Creativity doesn’t always equate with academic success, however. Finding myself close to flunking out of college, I envisioned a future as a very creative, very unemployed person. With tics and no willpower. In desperation I took up transcendental meditation my sophomore year. Initially, as with most people, I found that meditation was nearly impossible—so many random thoughts kept popping into my hyperactive head. But with time, TM eventually had a profound effect. Regular meditation gave me willpower, which, combined with exuberant energy, helped me perform well in school.

With both energy and willpower, I started to develop something I didn’t previously have: a purpose. My purpose, in turn, gave me more energy and willpower. Amazing what can happen when you have wind in your sails, a rudder, and a harbor.

PURPOSE AS A SOURCE OF WILLPOWER

In a follow-up to the NFL study, this time with French soccer fans, the researchers found that writing about core purposeful values completely eliminated the effect a loss had on willpower. Without values affirmation, watching a defeat increased fans’ intentions to eat unhealthy foods. With values affirmation, however, watching a defeat decreased this intention: Purposeful thinking increases willpower.

Based on the earlier discussion of eudaimonic versus hedonic values, you might wonder whether some values have a greater influence on willpower than others. Are some values more valuable than others?

In a beautifully designed and fun study by Aleah Burson and her colleagues, ninety-two college students had their egos depleted by being told that they weren’t picked by their classmates for a group project (a total lie, by the way; I feel so sorry for these students). Again, get your feelings hurt and you’re likely to lose willpower and eat mass quantities. The researchers then divided the students into three groups. The control group was asked to write about their daily routine, the second group was asked to write about their self-enhancing values such as power, fame, wealth, or attractiveness, and the third group was asked to write about their self-transcending values such as empathy, support for others, or community.

Afterward, students in each group were given a bowl of cookies and asked to taste-test the cookies as part of a consumer research study (another lie). The researcher said, “Eat as many as you want,” and left the room. So, the researchers first threatened the students’ egos, then wanted to test their willpower, measured by how many cookies they ate, but only after considering their self-transcending or self-enhancing values, or no values.

Students in the control condition ate an average of eight cookies! That, as I say to my students, is a lot of cookies. Chiding them, I ask, “Your feelings get hurt and you eat eight cookies?” They look back and say matter-of-factly, “Yes. What’s your point?”

But here’s the most important finding of the study: Compared to the average of eight cookies eaten by the control group, those students considering their self-enhancing values ate an average of five, and those considering their self-transcending values ate an average of three. So, affirming self-transcending, purposeful values seems to produce the greatest surge in willpower.

What else can people do to enhance their willpower? Recent research suggests that the same influences of energy are also relevant.

OTHER SOURCES OF WILLPOWER

Sleep. A good night’s sleep without medications boosts willpower. In a study of identical twins, the twin reporting fewer hours sleeping had, on average, lower willpower than the longer-sleeping twin. Inducing sleep deprivation in Chinese servicemen raised their levels of cortisol (the so-called stress hormone) and lowered their willpower. Sleep-deprived adolescents are more likely to have lower willpower, which, in turn, results in a higher rate of delinquency. And among college students, both too little and too much sleep are associated with lower grades.

Presence. Meditation boosted my willpower, and many studies show that other mindfulness-increasing practices such as yoga and tai chi do as well. In addition, meditation has been shown to reduce aggressiveness among U.S. military veterans, to improve control of pain, and to increase brain density in a region of the brain associated with emotional control. Tai chi training has resulted in the reduction of ADHD symptoms.

Activity. Physical activity plays a big part, too. For example, dieters decrease the amount of food they consume after exercising, particularly when the exercise is framed as “fun” versus “work.” As Stanford University lecturer Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct, writes, “According to the strength model of willpower, exercise should also temporarily exhaust willpower reserves. Over the long term, however, it should lead to increased strength or endurance of the willpower ‘muscle.’”

Creativity. According to the psychologist Mark Runco, “The flexibility of creative persons is what gives them the capacity to cope with the advances, opportunities, technologies, and changes that are a part of our current day-to-day lives.” Improvements in creativity are associated with an important aspect of willpower—the ability to generate many possible solutions to a given problem. After creativity training, researchers have demonstrated improvements in searching, retrieving, and integrating concepts from memory. In fact, recent animal studies suggest that an enriched, stimulating environment not only leads to greater memory formation, but that this effect is transmitted to the next generation!

Eating. Diet has a large influence on willpower. A study conducted by Matthew Gailliot and Roy Baumeister found that restoring low glucose levels to normal increased control of attention, emotions, quitting smoking, managing stress, resisting impulsive behavior, and refraining from criminal or aggressive behavior. What and when you eat is therefore an important contribution to your willpower.

So the five key lifestyle factors leading to greater energy—sleep, presence, activity, creativity, and eating—also have a positive influence on willpower.

To summarize, the dynamic process of aligning yourself with your life purpose requires energy and willpower: wind in your sails to move you forward, and a strong rudder to prevent being blown off course. And purpose, in turn, gives you more energy and willpower. What gives you more energy and willpower each day? Five positive lifestyle practices that can be summarized as SPACE—sleep, presence, activity, creativity, and eating. In my field, we like to put these relationships into box-and-arrow diagrams. Here’s what I’m talking about:

You can see from the diagram the reciprocal nature of purpose, energy, and willpower. It also illustrates a reciprocal relationship between energy and willpower and SPACE. We’ll learn more about these and other influences of SPACE in the next section.

Learn more about Life on Purpose at VicStrecher.com.

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