In the last article, “When Tomorrow never comes…”, we reviewed the underlying mechanism of procrastination and the negative impact it has on well-being.
In this article, we review the much socially desirable quality of self-control and show that if it usually brings positive life outcomes, it comes with a price and can have negative consequences.
Self-control is a much valued disposition in our society. Our best sport athletes have it, our CEOs have it, anybody showing a true level of mastery had to develop self-control since it is the ability to regulate one's emotions, thoughts, and behaviour in the face of temptations and impulses. So to keep going and adding up the hours required to achieve mastery, self-control is essential.
It is not new though and has been valued throughout history. Stoicism philosophy made it as one of its key elements. Stoicism sets out to remind us of how unpredictable the world can be and how brief our moment of life is. It also emphasises how to be steadfast, and strong, and in control of ourselves.
Denying oneself of temptation and pleasure can bring its own rewards for the people taking pleasure in asceticism, an other Greek philosophy and largely encouraged by all religions since the beginning of time. Research has since shown that asceticism brings more satisfaction (1) purpose and meaning (2) to life than hedonism, an other Greek philosophy where pleasure and avoiding suffering is believed to be conducive to well-being.
This view is percolating through society and it seems we have developed a “puritanical bias”, where people who lack in self-control are considered inferiors. Our Western societies are very judgemental and critical for people who are seen as having less self-control. There are many examples where people suffering from obesity, overspending, gaming or drug addiction are often seen as being responsible for their own fate and lacking the essential quality of self-control. Any of these situations are however very complex and can not be simply reduced to a lack of self-control in character. Broad societal and historical factors, are often much more influential than the personality of the individual in creating these situations.
In 1972, a psychologist, Walter Mischel conducted an experiment in Stanford University with 4 years old children. They were offered the choice between one small but immediate reward, or two small rewards if they waited for a period of time. During this time, the researcher left the room for about 15 minutes and then returned. The reward was a marshmallow stick. In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes in terms of educational achievement and overall health related measures. There was, for example, a much stronger prediction for academic achievement from self-control than there was from IQ
Since, this finding has been many times replicated and there is a body of evidence that people with strong self-control have better health, relationships, finances, and careers (3). They are also less likely to have problems with overeating, overspending, smoking, alcohol or drug abuse, procrastination, and unethical behavior.
So, is Self-Control the one quality that we need to develop and nurture above anything else?
Too much of a good thing is a bad thing…
Recent research shows that self-control has unintended negative consequences which impact the quality of our lives.
Self-control may restrict our emotional range: one of the reasons people develop self-control is because they feel less tempted than people who have less self-control, it also mean that they might have a narrower emotional range and less intense emotional experiences, preventing them to fully enjoy the small pleasures in life. I certainly can relate to this.
During my time in Oman where I was an expat, I could have lived a life of “luxury” but somehow, I denied myself of many of the pleasures which were at hands and judged harshly the people in my social network who took them. Looking back, I deprived myself from fully experiencing emotions such as the sheer exhilaration and adventure of racing across the Wahiba sands desert during the yearly rally event.
Self-control may lead to long-term regrets: Bronnie Ware, the famous palliative nurse wrote a book on the top-5 of ‘deathbed regrets’ of the patients she had taken care of in their last few days. Two of these regrets “I wish that I had let myself be happier” and “I wish I had not worked so hard” show that when people reflect on their lives they tend to regret when they have exerted too much self-control by choosing being productive for example over having fun and be tempted by the small pleasure in life.
During my sabbatical, I chose to go back to University to study Psychology. I studied real hard, much more than was necessary and I realised at the end of the sabbatical how little space and time I had created for sport and fun. The good grades will never compensate for denying myself of the great time I could have had if I had been less driven and self-controlling.
Self-control may lead you to take more responsibilities and work hard on achieving things you don’t really want: people can rapidly notice who in a group can be relied upon and people with high self-control might be burdened by many additional tasks and responsibilities as everybody knows that they will take them on. And so very self-controlled individuals go about life very seriously, taking additional responsibilities that other people push away and might end-up achieving things and leading a life they don’t really want.
I achieved some level of corporate success by being self-controlled but this came at the expense of being truly myself and honouring other values I have and which were clashing with my pursuit of a career in the Oil&Gas industry. The consequence was that I never truly enjoyed the success I had gained through much self-control because the cost of denying this other part of myself who aspired to another life was too high.
So self-control has an important place in our lives as it is a “mean”, a successful strategy to help us achieve our goals. Self-control, though, is not an “end” in itself as when it becomes our only way to deal with life it takes a toll on our emotional life, the pleasure we get out of it and it impacts our relationships.
The key is to become very intentional as to what we need and what we want. The more we are “congruent” with our goals, the less we will have to control ourselves all the time to get back on track when we stray away.
These "congruent" goals are our True North and they guide us through the journey of life. So, start at the beginning and identify them, the rest will follow.
- Homann, W., Luhmann, M., Fisher, R., Vohs, K., & Baumeister, R. (2013). Yes, But Are They Happy? Effects of Trait Self‐Control on Affective Well‐Being and Life Satisfaction.
- Stavrova, O., Ponk, T., & Kokkoris, M. (2018). Finding meaning in self-control: The effect of self-control on the perception of meaning in life.
- Tangney, J., Baumeister, R., & Boone, A. (20008). High Self‐Control Predicts Good Adjustment, Less Pathology, Better Grades, and Interpersonal Success.