Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney

With our society placing heavy value on intelligence and self-control, this book contributes insight to some aspects of willpower. Did you know that self-control consumes energy, and heavy application of it can deplete our reserves? Have you noticed that having to make a lot of decisions can also exhaust you? Teachers and administrators take note!

I saw a guest appearance of the author/researcher, Roy Baumeister, at Elmhurst College last week, and he presented a quote that President Obama made which specified that he only wears blue or grey suits because it is less complicated. As president, he has so many other important decisions to make. His quip made sense in light of Baumeister’s work. Life is so complicated and with many distractions and temptations, Baumeister found that people could keep their energy reserves if they just systematized life to the point where they have to make fewer decisions.

It strikes me as pragmatic to use this knowledge in so many realms. For example, limit the choices for breakfasts and lunches so you don’t get too rattled and are better able to focus on more important matters. Keep options few for family, students, and staff so they too are able to make choices with ease.

Baumeister described that Willpower is like a muscle which can become fatigued, but it can also be strengthened through practice. Willpower has been associated with better living and longevity. After all, those who do not partake in vices are also able to avoid the consequences of them. Think, for example, of overeating, using drugs, alcohol, not controlling one’s temper, and gambling, etcetera.

What value is self-control? Well, consider if all those diet, self-improvement, promises, and New Year’s resolutions all came true! It seems some people have more innate ability to control themselves versus others, but the practice of self-control can generate stronger willpower too.

Remember the classic psychology experiment by Mischel whereby children were tempted by a marshmallow? Youngsters were put in a room with a marshmallow and told that the adult would be back soon. They had the option to eat the marshmallow while the adult was absent, or they could delay and receive two if it was still there upon the adult’s return. Some children chose to wait and others ate the marshmallow; but the most amazing thing is that when tracked many years later, the children who exhibited more self-control still had the same tendency and were generally more successful in a range of attributes. It is rare to find such a reliable indicator that has predictability value.

Baumeister and other psychology associates used a different methodology and studied a couple hundred adult subjects in Germany, and concluded that there was definitely a lot of resisting of urges. Some may say this was bad science, but it did prompt some modicum of reference in his book of the historic development of mankind and generation of a theory about Energy and Will. Differentiation of American and European social psychology versus that of Germans as a consequence of the World Wars was considered, and I had my own pondering about what might be possible if researchers studied a variety of ethnicities or cultures? A social scientist may note the polar reactions of some residents of New Orleans during hurricane Katrina compared to the conduct observed of some Japanese people in the nuclear event of Fukushima. Why such varied reactions of social groups? Baumeister’s work will certainly sire new horizons of inquiry.

Baumeister cites that as a society we are slipping in our ownership of Willpower, and he states that social scientists are quick to relegate blame for individual problems as beyond the individual’s control. It is easier to blame people’s problems on poverty, the education system, and government rather than personal responsibility, such is the current trend.

Is it any wonder then why people feel they have no control or power over anything? How detrimental is this to our society? What impact will this perspective have on the upcoming election? How do we inculcate a “can do” or personal empowerment mentality in ourselves, our dependents, and in America? These are my musings, and I’d greatly appreciate feedback and a continuation of this thread of thought.

Back to Self-Control: According to previous work done by Baumeister and his associates, the ability to self-regulate was correlated with a wide range of favorable traits and outcomes that could be generalized as “success.” Conversely, those who were ranked as having poor self-control had a greater likelihood to have trouble with the law, alcohol, drugs, financial and marital problems. The benefits of self-control have been made clear.

At this point, I’m not done reading the book, but want to share before this blog becomes a book itself! As the weather has derailed my putting practice a few days, I’m sad to think that golf season may be over for me until I attend the ISNA West Coast Education Forum, January 18-19, where I hope to escape to do some desert golf after the conference! At least it is not snowing here…yet.

Also, I sense my own willpower is a bit frail, Nadia and I have started doing the popular Insanity workout, but we are only into the 3rd day. Without the habit being strong yet, changing seasons, and feeling the pain of missing old patterns, I hope my own willpower is fortified by continued reading.

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