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Carpe Diem?

photo by jessica wilson, via flickr creative commons

photo by jessica wilson, via flickr creative commons

Earlier this week, The Atlantic reported on a study showing that people with a lot of self-control are happier.  When I came across the article, it was easy for me to see how this might be true in the longish-term (i.e., “I feel happy because I set out to avoid ice cream every day for the last month, and I succeeded”), but my gut instinct was to question whether the subjects were actually happier in the short-term…in the moment.  After all, ice cream is delicious.

The researchers wondered this too, and completed a follow-up study to look at this exact question.  Surprisingly, the results showed higher short-term happiness as well, reportedly because people with a lot of self-control don’t actually feel they’re denying themselves anything.  Rather, they get and stay ahead of the temptation, shutting it down before it can even enter their consciousness.  This might sound something like “I don’t eat ice cream.”

Call me a hedonist, but I’m still skeptical, despite this evidence and the (I’d guess) related data on delayed gratification (see: Stanford Marshmallow Experiment).  The thing is, I fear that self-control = boring/not fun.  And I think we can create a lot of happy moments by doing things that might be just a little bit reckless: staying up late with friends despite knowing we have a 5am wake-up call, running a race despite a nagging injury, saying “I love you” a bit too soon, speaking our mind without completely weighing the costs and benefits.

What this study boils down to for me is plain old common sense: focus on the areas where self-control really matters and ruthlessly get out ahead of the temptation.  If you have blood sugar issues, don’t keep sweets in the house.  If you’re tempted to spend money you don’t have, avoid shopping.  If you can’t stay off your phone when you’re with your kids, turn it off.  And once those hard and fast decisions are out of the way, be easy on yourself.  Balance limit-pushing with self-control, and carpe diem without losing sight of what lies ahead.

What do you think?  In what parts of your life is self-control really important, and where are you happy to indulge?

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. My reaction was exactly the same: my self control has me staying home to tackle laundry and get to bed early, rather than going out for some fun. But I guess when I’m 60, I’ll be glad I had the self control to pay into a retirement fund!

    July 3, 2013
    • OK, glad you had a similar reaction 🙂 Thanks for the comment, Pauline!

      July 4, 2013
  2. ebriceno #

    Thanks Brynn. I guess I don’t see the same disconnect. I think that people with high self-control can do creative things, and spontaneous things and risky and unplanned and even reckless things. They just do them because they make the choice to do so. I think self-control helps one pursue the things one wants to pursue – and if one is clear about what makes one happy (be it expressing love early or whatever else), one can do those things more effectively. A really funny person needs to have the self-control to wait until the right moment to deliver the punch line.

    July 4, 2013
    • Ed, this makes complete sense. And I would definitely trust your understanding of self-control over mine. 🙂 I appreciate the feedback…maybe another question to ask is what about our society made me jump to self-control = boring. Media? Experience? Education? My own lack of self-control? As always, your thoughtful feedback is so very much appreciated.

      July 4, 2013
      • ebriceno #

        I’m certainly not a self-control ninja – I’m just adding my hunch to the stew.

        I definitely see where you come from on the impression of self-control = boring, but I don’t know where it comes from. Maybe it’s related to a lack of social interest in, or spotlight on, living life purposefully, but instead letting life unfold as it may. Self-control then is positioned as ‘following the doctor’s orders’ rather than ‘following your heart/purpose’. Maybe…

        July 4, 2013
  3. ebriceno #

    Hi Brynn. Here’s an article that just came out that is a a bit related to this topic: Some of it I think supports the hunch that you originally described in this post, like “Curiosity, it seems, is largely about exploration—often at the price of momentary happiness. Curious people generally accept the notion that while being uncomfortable and vulnerable is not an easy path, it is the most direct route to becoming stronger and wiser. In fact, a closer look at the study by Kashdan and Steger suggests that curious people invest in activities that cause them discomfort as a springboard to higher psychological peaks.” (though I don’t think they’d call that short-term state of curiosity ‘boring’, but they don’t think of it as a happy state). I think the article also supports the view that self-control leads to happiness (e.g. “But from time to time, it’s worth seeking out an experience that is novel, complicated, uncertain, or even upsetting—whether that means finally taking the leap and doing karaoke for the first time or hosting a screening of your college friend’s art-house film. The happiest people opt for both so that they can benefit, at various times, from each.”) and also about self-control including ‘indulgences’ (e.g. “Happy people know that ALLOWING YOURSELF to enjoy easy momentary indulgences that are personally rewarding—taking a long, leisurely bath, vegging out with your daughter’s copy of The Hunger Games, or occasionally skipping your Saturday workout in favor of catching the soccer match on TV—is a crucial aspect of living a satisfying life.”). Interesting article – hope you like it!

    July 6, 2013

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