Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength

The  immediately preceding post, Irresistible described the increasing addictive dangers of technology.  This and the immediately following posts will outline the solution.  That solution is willpower, and is covered in detail in a book with the title of this post  Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.   In the concluding chapter of this book they write that they’re still bullish on the future of self-control, at both the personal and social levels.  And they concede that temptations are getting more sophisticated, but so are the tools for resisting them.

Charles Darwin wrote in “The Descent of Man,” “The highest possible state in moral culture is when we recognize that we ought to control our thoughts.  Most personal problems, both personal and social, center on the failure of self-control:  compulsive spending and borrowing, impulsive violence, underachievement in school, procrastination at work, alcohol and drug abuse, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, chronic anxiety, explosive anger.  Poor self-control correlates with practically every kind of individual trauma: losing friends, being fired, getting divorced, and ending up in prisons.  It contributed to the epidemic of risky loans and investments that devastated the financial system.  Ultimately, self-control let’s you relax because it removes stress and enables you to conserve willpower for the important challenges.

There are two important facts to understand about willpower.  There is a biological constraint on willpower.  When glucose levels are low, willpower declines.  And there is an additional constraint on willpower that is psychological.   There is a limited supply of willpower, and exercising willpower depletes this limited supply.  We use the same resource for doing different things.  This is why it is pointless to have many New Year’s Eve resolutions.  The fewer you have, the less likely any of them will be successful.  In previous healthy memory posts the recommendation was to have, at most, two resolutions.  One should be fairly easy, so at least there will be one victory, and the other should be challenging so that the success of that resolution would be grounds for cheering.  But do them in succession, say easy first, then difficult, rather than trying to do them both at the same time.

Many strategies and techniques for effectively using one’s willpower that are based on sound research are presented in the book.  One of them is positive procrastination.  For example, you might want to  have some tasty treat, but you tell yourself to procrastinate, to have it sometime later.  There is also a humorous example provided by  Robert Benchley, my favorite humorist.  In one of his essays he writes that he is often asked how he manages to accomplish so much work, given that he appears to be so dissipated.  He explained how he could summon the discipline to read a scientific article about tropical fish, build a bookshelf, arrange books on said shelf, and write an answer to a friend’s letter that had been sitting in a pile on his desk for twenty years.  All he had to do was to draw up a to-do list for the week and put these tasks above his top priority—his job of writing an article.  He wrote, “The secret of my incredible energy and efficiency in getting work done is a simple one.  The psychological principal  is this:  anyone can do any amount of work, provided that it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.”  I encourage readers to look up Robert Benchley on the Wikipedia.  Much of his work is still available on amazon.com.

The following is from the concluding chapter of Willpower.  “People with stronger willpower are more altruistic.  “They’re more likely to donate to charity, to do volunteer work, and to offer their own homes as shelter to someone with no place to go.  Willpower evolved because it was crucial for our ancestors to get along with the rest of the clan, and it’s still serving that purpose today.  Inner discipline still leads to outer kindness.”

You are strongly encouraged to read Willpower even though the following posts will be based on his book about this important topic, they can only scratch the surface.  Erick Clapton, Mary Karr, David Blaine, and Henry Morton Stanley. Should you not know Henry Morton Stanley, he is famous for finding a Scottish missionary in the wilds of Africa and saying, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”  He is a legendary figure in willpower.  He makes David Blaine look like a wuss.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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