We rely on willpower to exercise, diet, save money, quit smoking, stop drinking, overcome procrastination, and ultimately accomplish any of our goals. It impacts every area of our lives.
Willpower is not a new concept, but we still do not have widespread awareness as to how to nurture it.Many people have an intuitive sense of what this willpower is but lack the scientific knowledge to understand the forces that undermine it.
How can we work with willpower instead of against its stubborn nature?
They say knowledge is power, and in this case, knowledge is willpower.
What is Willpower?
People use different definitions to describe willpower, but some of the most common synonyms are: drive, determination, self-discipline, self-control, self-regulation, effortful control.
At the core of willpower is the ability to resist short-term temptations and desires in order to achieve long-term goals. It’s the prevailing source of long-term satisfaction over instant gratification.
According to APA (American Psychological Association), most psychology researchers define willpower as:
▪️ The ability to delay gratification and resist short-term temptations to meet long-term goals;
▪️ The capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling or impulse;
▪️ The conscious, effortful regulation of the self, by the self;
▪️ A limited resource capable of being depleted.
The general idea linking these definitions is of a self effortfully regulating the self.
Studies show that people scoring high on self-control are more apt at regulating behavioral, emotional and attention impulses to achieve long-term goals when compared to more impulsive individuals.
For most of us, when we think of willpower, the first things to pop to mind are the challenges that require us to resist temptation. How do we refuse that chocolate cake, the department store, the internet, that cigarette?
Most of us are aware of the importance of willpower, nevertheless.
Overall, self-control appears to be a better predictor of academic achievement than intelligence. It is also a stronger determinant of effective leadership than charisma and more important for marital satisfaction than empathy.
Anywhere you look at it, people with greater willpower are:
▪️ More satisfied in their relationships;
▪️ Wealthier and further ahead in their careers;
▪️ More able to manage stress, deal with conflict and overcome adversity.
The point is this: we all have willpower and we all use it to some extent. But most of us would be closer to achieving all our goals if we focused on improving our willpower.
The Neuroanatomy of WillpowerThe prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the part of our brains, right behind our forehead and eyes that’s responsible for abstract thinking, analyzing thoughts and regulating behavior.
When you meditate or ponder conflicting thoughts, predict outcomes of our choices, and decide “right verse wrong,” you are relying on your PFC.
The PFC controls what we pay attention to, how we express our personality, what we think about and how we feel. In other words, it controls a lot of “who we are.”
The PFC expanded in size throughout human evolution, which indicates a natural selection process in favor of its continued growth and evolution. While the brain itself has only increased in size about three-fold over the last five million years, the PFC has increased its size six-fold over this period of time.
Studies show that this part of the brain is the last to mature; its development is not complete until around age 25. Which is likely why otherwise intelligent and sensible teens still engage in high-risk or excessive behaviors, even though they understand the potential consequences.
The “I will, I won’t and I want powers” that comprise willpower draw on different parts of the PFC. The brain region near the upper left side is responsible for the “I will power,” helping you start and stick with not so fun or stressful tasks.
The right side handles the “I won’t power,” refraining you from acting on your every impulse or craving.
And the third region which tackles the “I want power,” sits lower in the middle of the PFC, keeping track of your goals and desires. This is the part of your brain that reminds you that you want to live a healthy and full life when everything else in your body is telling you On the contrary.
5 Ways to Strengthen Willpower.
Aristotle’s quote is at the core of each of the following ways people can improve their willpower.
“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” Aristotle
Once we understand the root source of our behaviors, it is easier—though still difficult—to work towards our goals. Scientific studies highlight exactly how the following behavioral changes can influence willpower.
1) Improve Your Self-Awareness.
Self-awareness is the ability to recognize what we are doing as we’re doing it. Our thought processes, emotions, and reasons for acting are an important part of making better choices.
Meditation does not mean you need to find a quiet view and begin your days by watching the sunrise. Although if you have access and the ability to do that, that’s great.
Meditation can be as simple as taking five deep, calming breaths the next time you are stuck in a long line. The neurological benefits are huge.
Historically, the psychological paradigm was that we had a “fixed brain,” meaning you were born a certain way and over time, your brain will decline. This is no longer what science reveals.
With modern technology and research, today’s neuroscientists know that the brain is responsive to experience—it actually changes based on what you do.
When you practice a certain behavior, you’re strengthening the neural connections for that behavior, making it more accessible and more likely to occur.
Practice worrying, and you get better at worrying because the brain region associated with that will grow denser. Practice concentration and you’ll also get better at it and your brain will respond accordingly.
You can also train your brain for better self-control and meditation is one of the best ways to do it. Why? Because meditation has a powerful effect on a wide range of skills that relate to self-control:
▪️ Stress management;
▪️ Impulse control;
Regular meditators have more grey matter in the prefrontal cortex and other areas of the brain responsible for self-awareness. And contrary to what you may think, it doesn’t take years of practice to observe changes in the brain. One study showed that only three hours of meditation resulted in improved attention and self-control, and eleven hours led to visible changes in the brain.
For a lot of people, exercise is their willpower challenge. But exercise is one of the best tools you can use to strengthen your willpower.
Anything that you like to do and gets you moving can be beneficial. A great idea is to take your workout outdoors. Science shows that “green exercise” decreases stress, improves mood and enhances self-control and focus.
Any type of physical activity that gets you out in nature can strengthen your willpower.
4) Eat Well.
A growing body of research proves that resisting temptations takes a toll on us mentally. Some researchers claim that our willpower, just like a muscle, can get tired if overused, and it needs fuel.
Studies show that sugar, especially the pervasive high fructose corn syrup can increase the levels of stress hormones in the brain and trigger mental health problems like anxiety and depression. To prevent this, eating whole foods regularly and avoiding refined sugars will keep your glucose levels stable and therefore better equipped when it comes to willpower.
Researchers on self-control also advise that muscles can become fatigued when overused in the short term, but over the long run, they are strengthened by regular exercise.
Similarly, using your self-control frequently and effectively can lead to stronger willpower muscles.
Heart rate variability is one of our body’s physiological indicators of stress and relaxation. It’s the time variation of the interval between heartbeats. Everyone’s heart varies to some degree. For an average healthy person, the heart will have normal ups and downs.
When you’re stressed, the sympathetic nervous system takes over. This is the branch of your nervous system frequently referred to as the “fight or flight system.” It enables your body to respond quickly to perceived threats or stress.
When this happens, your heart rate goes up but the variability goes down, so your heart gets stuck at a higher rate, leading to physical feelings of anxiety and anger.
When you’re in a calm, relaxed state, the parasympathetic nervous system is in charge. This is the other part of your nervous system, often called the “rest and digest system.” You’ll experience a lower heart rate, and the heart rate variability increases since there are longer pauses between heartbeats.
“The Psychology of Willpower: Training the Brain for Better Decisions”, www.positivepsychologyprogram.com