Self-Control: Science and Art

August 19, 2018

 

Modern Westerners, especially younger generations, mine included, are severely lacking in a primary virtue that is necessary for successful living on virtually all fronts of life.  Call it willpower, call it self-control or self-discipline, call it self-directed behavior, any name we give it, if we examine ourselves, our society, and our culture thoughtfully, it does not take long to realize that we are facing a substantial deficit in rugged self-discipline and denial.  Our culture has come to embrace rather a sense of entitlement, a desire for immediate gratification, and an indulgence in sensual pleasures. Somewhere along the way, we have come to believe that we should feel good, happy, and comfortable all of the time, that if we feel any type of pain, discomfort, or unease, well then something must be wrong. We want quick fixes and shortcuts to anything and everything. In my opinion, this aspect of our cultural zeitgeist is a major contributing factor to many of the issues that Westerners and US residents face individually and collectively - from America’s gradual but steady fall from the top of academic rankings worldwide to the prevalence of substance use related problems rampant across the country.

We need to learn once again to embrace a rugged self-discipline and spirit of self-control.  But what is self-control or willpower and how to we grow in it? Is it something that you either have or lack? Born with or without? Is it skill, a muscle of the human spirit and personal character that can be exercised with increasing efficacy?  Behavioral scientist Howard Rachlin more or less defines self-control as when our behavior is guided by larger, distant or vague and abstract rewards instead of more immediate, smaller, rewards. Think of the following example. If you go buy a cheeseburger and fries for dinner today, you will enjoy some immediate rewards of a calorically dense, fatty, salty meal. It will taste good and pleasure centers in your brain will be firing away. Those are immediate rewards. But later tonight you may experience indigestion, heaviness, and heartburn.  If you eat cheeseburgers every day, you will likely experience various health problems in the future such as weight gain, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, etc. On the other hand if you eat meals that consist of broccoli, whole grains, and lean proteins, you will avoid many of the unhealthy consequences associated with the cheeseburger. Long-term you will stay leaner, be healthier, and feel better.  Over an extended period of time, chicken, broccoli, and rice will likely lead to much greater rewards over eating the cheeseburger repeatedly. But let’s face it, for many of us, the cheeseburger is more immediately appealing and tempting. This is the dilemma of self-control - how do we come to choose the behaviors right now that may be less enjoyable, less fun, less comfortable, but that in the long run will lead to the better outcome?  How do we give up something that we want now, for something even better but farther off in the future?

Research suggests that self-control really is a skill, or rather a set of skills, that we can learn to employ in specific settings and then generalize to wide spread areas of our lives and behaviors. Willpower and self-control are not merely inborn traits that we either have or don’t and they aren’t fixed at certain levels. Self-control can start off as deliberate choices which will when repeatedly chosen will become ingrained habits of character. This article is the first of many that I plan to write examining the various methods and means people have learned to increase their ability to self-regulate. I’ll be looking at both modern scientific research and time tested writings of philosophers and scriptures. Each post will include very practical steps to begin learning the skills of self-control.

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