Credit: Air Force Reserve Command

Credit: Air Force Reserve Command

When surveyed by the American Psychological Association about their abilities to make healthy lifestyle changes, Americans cited lack of willpower as the No. 1 reason for not following through with such changes. But what is willpower and how can people nurture it? Research suggests that avoiding temptation and practicing delayed gratification are both predictors of disciplined or high-willpower individuals. Now, a new study builds upon these characteristics, finding that people that score higher on self-control tend to experience less intense visceral states, such as hunger, fatigue, and stress.

Mind over body

At its essence, willpower is the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals — and studies suggest that it’s all worth the effort.

University of Pennsylvania psychologists Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman gave students a task in which they had the option of receiving $1 immediately or waiting a week to receive $2. The students who ranked high on self-discipline had better grades, better school attendance, and higher standardized test scores, and were more likely to be admitted to a competitive high school program. Across the board, self-discipline seems to be more important than IQ in predicting academic success.

At George Mason University, June Tangney compared willpower among undergraduate students and found that the students’ self-control scores correlated with higher grade-point averages, higher self-esteem, less binge eating and alcohol abuse, and better relationship skills.

Most recently, according to the findings of Cassandra Baldwin and colleagues at Texas A&M University, high self-control is also associated with less intense feelings of hunger, fatigue, and stress — all of which are known to promote impulsive behavior.

The team combed through 25 studies, gathering data on 5,500 college students. The information included things like how much sleep the student had had the previous night, the amount of time since they had last eaten, and when they had last time gotten a common cold. Participants also had their self-control traits measured, which were rated through an agreement with statements like “I have a hard time breaking bad habits” and “I am able to work effectively toward long-term goals.”

Higher trait self-control was correlated with less intense experiences of all measured visceral states, including cold symptoms. Sleep and timely meals seem to have mediated these effects. High self-control individuals experienced less hunger and fatigue, which may due to them getting more sleep and not going so long without eating than individuals with lower self-control.

“This research supports emerging perspectives on trait self-control’s contributions to positive outcomes,” the researchers wrote in the journal Self and Identity. 

The study isn’t perfect, though. For one, it exclusively used college students. Secondly, it’s not very clear if higher self-control leads to milder visceral states or vice-versa.

It’s also worth noting that the associations identified in this study were modest in size — however, they were statistically significant. What’s more, these seemingly modest effects tend to accumulate. For instance, take the correlation between higher self-control and getting more sleep the previous night, which is evidenced by the fact that a person low on self-control slept about 20 minutes less than a person high in self-control. That might not seem like a lot, but over a whole week, this amounts to a two-hour difference between the two study groups.

Perhaps some of you who feel low on willpower would like to know what to do in order to enter its graces. While there seems to be some genetic predisposition to high willpower, the good news is that this also seems to be a trait that can be acquired. Good habits that foster willpower include exercising, meditation, sleeping well, and learning to say ‘no’ to things you know offer an immediate satisfaction but hurt you in the long run (such as eating ice cream instead of going for a jog or watching a movie instead of learning a new language like you’ve always wanted).