Numerous research studies, conducted over several decades, have shown two characteristics that are consistent with the attainment of successful and happy lives.  These are intelligence and self-control. Roy Baumeister, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, has extensively researched and written about this second characteristic in his book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.

The term ‘willpower’ is aligned with terms such as ‘self-control’, ‘self-restraint’, ‘self-discipline’ and ‘self-regulation’.  These terms relate to one’s ability to restrain impulses or desires; to override or change the direction of one’s response. I attended a seminar presented by Roy Baumeister recently and he describes willpower as being like a muscle.  The more we use willpower or self-control on a regular basis, the stronger this capacity becomes; the more easily it can be accessed and the longer it can be activated.  Perhaps this is why we refer to it as ‘exercising willpower’. He also calls this the ‘moral muscle’ because willpower acts as an impulse control or to restrain drives that might be considered inappropriate.

Just like a physical muscle, willpower uses up a lot of one’s energy resources and power is depleted when it has been used for a period of time.  keep-calm-and-have-willpower-3Think of a long cross-country run or other form of physical exercise.  An athlete might start off fresh, with plenty of energy.  As the race progresses, muscles get tired, energy stores are being used up, so the athlete’s pace slows and physical energy is gradually depleted. It may be possible to call on energy reserves for a final burst of effort to cross the finish line but the athlete is then exhausted and unable to function for a period of time. With regular training and exercise, an athlete gets fitter, stronger and endurance improves.

It is similar with the mental energy required to exercise self-control and willpower. When an individual is required to use willpower for a period of time, the level of glucose energy is gradually depleted.  If necessary, energy reserves can be called upon for a final burst of willpower but this takes its toll; leaving the individual spent and unable to implement self-control for a time until energy is restored through rest and food intake to replenish glucose supplies. As with the athlete, the regular exercise of willpower builds this ‘moral muscle’, so the capacity to use self-control gradually becomes stronger.

Willpower that is well exercised can be used for longer periods of time without the same level of energy depletion occurring. Understanding how willpower is developed; how to use and restore the glucose energy needed for the exercise of willpower helps to ensure strength and endurance for self-control is built and maintained.

© Michele Juratowitch