Self-Disciplined People Are Happier (and Not as Deprived as You Think)

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It’s easy to think of the highly self-disciplined as being miserable misers or uptight Puritans, but it turns out that exerting self-control can make you happier not only in the long run, but also in the moment.

The research, which was published in the Journal of Personality, showed that self-control isn’t just about deprivation, but more about managing conflicting goals. Since most people associate highly disciplined folks with being more task-oriented — they’re not likely to be the life of the party, for example, or eager to act on a whim — the scientists decided to correlate self-control with people’s happiness, to determine if being self-disciplined leaves people feeling less joyful.

Through a series of tests — including one that assessed 414 middle-aged participants on self-control and asked them about their life satisfaction both currently and in the past — and another that randomly queried volunteers on their smartphones about their mood and any desires they might be experiencing, the researchers found a strong connection between higher levels of self-control and life satisfaction. The authors write that “feeling good rather than bad may be a core benefit of having good self-control, and being well satisfied with life is an important consequence.”

The smartphone experiment also revealed how self-control may improve mood. Those who showed the greatest self-control reported more good moods and fewer bad ones. But this didn’t appear to linked to being more able to resist temptations — it was because they exposed themselves to fewer situations that might evoke craving in the first place. They were, in essence, setting themselves up to happy. “People who have good self-control do a number of things that bring them happiness — namely, they avoid problematic desires and conflict,” says the study’s co-author Kathleen Vohs, professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota.

(MORE: With Age Comes Happiness)

That became clear in the study’s last experiment, which investigated how self-control affects the way people handle goals that conflict with one another. In particular, the researchers were interested in how self-disciplined and less-disciplined people differed when it came to choosing among “virtues” or “vices” — like the pleasure of eating a sugar cookie vs. the pain of gaining weight. More than 230 participants were asked to list three important goal conflicts they experienced regularly — and then to rate how strongly the goals conflicted and how frequently they experienced the conflict. They were also queried on how they managed to balance the goals.

The highly self-controlled showed a distinct difference from those with less discipline over their lives. They tended to avoid creating situations in which their goals would conflict, and reported fewer instances of having to choose between short-term pleasure and long-term pain. The result? They experienced fewer negative emotions.  The authors write that “one interpretation of this finding is that people use self-control to set up their lives so as to avoid problems.”

“[It’s a] very interesting study,” says Kristin Smith-Crowe, associate professor of management at the University of Utah, who was not connected with the research, “The authors address some of the most important questions in life: What leads to happiness and how can we achieve a life well lived?”

The answer, it seems, lies in being a good manager. Self-control, for one, may not consist so much of being better at resisting temptation, but at finding better ways to avoid it. “High self-control does make you happy,” the authors conclude.

(MORE: The Secrets of Self-Control: The Marshmallow Test 40 Years Later)

So why does exerting more self-discipline seem so dreary? Dieting, for example, is all about self-control but isn’t necessarily associated with happy thoughts. Part of that may have to do with the effort required to bypass or diffuse conflicts created by temptation. “From other research, we know that exercising self-control is taxing,” says Smith-Crowe, but that may only be a perception, since it results from our tendency to focus on the difficulty of exercising discipline rather than the benefits that result when we do.

And self-control doesn’t always mean self-denial: it may mean saving now to get a big payoff later. For dieters, it means making choices to avoid entering a bakery since you’re more likely to buy a cupcake if you do. Granted, self-control isn’t the best route to instant gratification, but it may bring something even better: long-term contentment.

19 comments
quando25
quando25

I admire highly self-disciplined people.... They are usually very motivated and achieve a lot in life. Being self disciplined is not that difficult and I guess it comes down in part to a persons temperament. I always enjoy the quality of articles you write... Looking forward to your next post.... http://dentalinstrument.soup.io

ChristopherWojdak
ChristopherWojdak

Aristotle could have told you this 2300 years ago. Still, nice to see good research backing up age old truths. 

HamishLove
HamishLove

Discipline and Willpower are massively important.

I had almost non existant disciplie. I knew what to do but could never do it. I got this book PATH TO WILLPOWER from


learningthesteel.com


And have been building an iron mind and strong discipline ever since. Lost heaps of weight and got ripped. And super happy too.

LongGameThink
LongGameThink

Control as well as free will includes managing your moods, thoughts and behaviors.  Behavioral Economics is ripe with examples of how poor our decision making can be when we are not aware of our actual decision making process. Think of it as sailing a boat, pick the right course and the winds and take you were you want to go, even when they are blowing in the "wrong" direction.

SCcgc
SCcgc

  "DIETING, FOR EXAMPLE, IS ALL ABOUT SELF CONTROL..."  THE TRUTH IS simple carbohydrate (processed flour food) addictions are not uncommon, and can be true physiological dependencies.  You can look up the science on this.  Awareness of this helps one to break free of the dependency, and prevents further loss of self esteem from feeling like a failure at "self-control".  I used to eat/drink excessive amounts of dairy, believing I simply loved dairy, but was craving it due to a hidden intolerance which caused years of asthma.  I would have never made the connection if I hadn't been told by a certified nutritionist.  If processed carbs are an issue, try replacing them with small amounts of UNprocessed grains like quinoa, whole (rolled) oats or brown rice, and eat plenty of real food- vegetables, lean protein, and for healthy fat which is vital to healthy cell function and actually helps with weight loss- raw nuts, virgin coconut oil (good in smoothies), uncooked extra virgin olive oil, avocados.  

taymtsan
taymtsan

I think they are getting the direction of causation backwards.  Happier people have an easier time exercising self-control because they don't have nagging anxiety tempting them to seek immediate gratification for relief from the anxiety.  

punkakes13
punkakes13

i think self control shouldnt be eternal..

when its about diet.. its miserable one who lives forever over self control

like, and have to live for the rest of its life

i already do a lot of self control

if i didnt, idk


punkakes13
punkakes13

self control should be used if u want

when its worth it

but sometimes u may not know its worth it the prize

UleNotknow
UleNotknow

"... self-control isn’t just about deprivation, but more about managing conflicting goals." Managing conflicting goals; the problem with the population that lives beyond their means then come crying for relief when they can't pay the rent.

StevenCox
StevenCox

I'm going to sort of disagree.  The benefit of self control, according to this article, is in the management of conflicting thoughts.  The issue then is not self-control, which is a defense against conflict, but rather stop having conflicting thoughts.

This is easier to do than it appears.  Let's take over-eating, for example.  The truth is almost everybody feels slightly better being slightly empty, than slightly full.  And, when you're really full, it isn't pleasant at all.  The desire to be overly full is a weird disease in which the person overrides their natural feelings in favor of a perceived good.  Self-reflection and honesty will take a person to where they acknowledge they don't feel great being full, and do feel pretty good being a little light in the stomach.  Once that is achieved self-control isn't needed, because you naturally don't want to eat 10 cookies.  Having one or two is fine. 


Self-reflection, which is improved when one meditates or prays, and a practice of honesty, are both goods, in and of themselves.  They aren't defenses against 'bads', which is what self-control is.  A defense always backfires.  

This is not to say one isn't better off with self-control for all the reasons listed in the article, plus all the obvious reasons.  But, IMO, it is second best to more self-awareness and honesty.


jodyc
jodyc

I've found that self control is less about deprivation than internalizing the benefit embodied in the choice made. 

marmarthunder
marmarthunder

self-control is a fruit of the spirit the bible says.

mahadragon
mahadragon

For me it's intermixed with religion. I'm part of Buddhist temple. We were supposed to meditate daily. I hated it cause it was the first time in my whole life I am forced to do something daily. I feel it has really helped me out today to be the person I am. This started back in 1994.

tjdjdjd
tjdjdjd

@taymtsan That is not true.  Some people have horrible anxiety and bide the anxiety and seek effective coping skills without impulsively relinquishing the discomfort.  That is the definition of self-discipline, choosing to not indulge despite emotional turbulences.

AnaAlves
AnaAlves

@taymtsan I was going to write a reflection similar to yours. Because one thing is the coincidence, the correspondence, between two phenomena, and another thing is the causal relationship between them.

taymtsan
taymtsan

@StevenCox I find being full to be a very pleasurable feeling.  There's nothing like the nice full feeling after a delicious meal.

kwabenaemma
kwabenaemma

@jodyc You speak truth; I've been a raw foodist for a while now and I always find that whenever I fail to visualize the benefit of tearing into a bucket of drumsticks or whatever I falter and often fall into negative health habits. My sister is trying the raw lifestyle now and I see that there's this great war being waged between addiction to the taste of food in her mouth and the experience of health in her body when she forgoes the immediate gratification of indulging.