The Science Behind Willpower
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Health and Wellness

The Science Behind Willpower

Maybe self-control isn't always just about telling yourself no?

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The Science Behind Willpower

The definition of willpower is “the strength of will to carry out one’s decisions, wishes or plans." To me, the definition of willpower is to not give into the daily temptations of junk food and lethargic days.

Imagine that it is the end to a long day. Someone brought doughnuts to work which you politely declined. You got a salad at lunch instead of a hamburger. You walked by the vending machine without buying anything half a dozen times. As soon as you get home, you can’t help but eat half your cupboard, laying waste to old boxes of cereal and anything that sounds remotely good. Why can't you make healthy choices all day and then somehow, it always fall apart at the end of the day? It's willpower and the science behind it.

A famous study was conducted more than 40 years ago on the subject of willpower and self-control. In this study, children were given a marshmallow. The researcher then told the child that they were leaving the room and if the child waited to eat the marshmallow until the researcher came back, then they could have two marshmallows. These children were followed up on years later, and the ones that could delay the gratification and wait until the researcher came back to eat their marshmallows were, in general, doing better in life than their not so patient counterparts. A study on 59 of the participants later in life also showed that their differing levels of willpower also showed those results throughout their life. The participants, now in their 40s, who had higher levels of willpower as a child still had a higher level of self-control compared to the more impulsive participants.

In a recent study, 27 percent of participants said that a lack of willpower was the single biggest barrier to making positive changes in their lives. Whether it is the ability to delay gratification, increase self-control, or adhere better to a workout or diet plan, willpower is often in high demand and short supply. There are three types of willpower: I Won’t, I Will, and I Want.

Willpower as we understand it is controlled by one of the newer parts of our brain, the prefrontal cortex. What newer research is starting to show is that willpower is a finite resource that each of us possesses and it's not a limitless pool that lucky individuals can tap into. Every time we resist the urge to do something that takes our willpower to avoid, we use a little bit of it up. One studied showed that we have these moments of decision about half of the time we are awake, and we use our willpower to either control or deny what we desire about 40 percent of the time. These acts of self-control that happen dozens of times a day slowly drain our reserve of willpower, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. This explains why a lot of people can make it through most of the day eating healthy or following a goal, and then fall apart at night. Resisting all those temptations all day drained their willpower so that when they get home, they didn’t have any left.

Willpower and stress are inversely related. As stress goes up, willpower goes down regardless of if it is used or not. Research has shown that there are two things that can possibly increase willpower; One of them is, of course, exercise. Although it is not clear why, exercise is thought to increase willpower by decreasing stress. The second thing that can improve willpower is meditation or mindfulness. Meditation acts in a positive way on the brain and can increase gray matter in the prefrontal cortex which can lead to more willpower.

With this new knowledge at your disposal, increasing your willpower can be as easy as exercising and practicing being mindful every day. It’s important to understand that your willpower is finite and will eventually run out. Maybe having that doughnut in the morning at work isn’t so bad if it saves up your willpower later in the day to not pig out. Willpower is another tool that when used correctly can help you become the best version of yourself.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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