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.
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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.
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.