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?