- You want to become an early riser, but once your alarm clock goes off, you hit the snooze button, and go back to sleep.
- You decide to eat healthier, but you find yourself ordering a meal at McDonald’s.
- You think that it would be great to hit the gym and shed those extra few pounds before the summer, but after a long way of work, you end up in a couch in front of the TV.
You are not alone. Most of us say to ourselves “I wish I’d have more willpower” on a regular basis. However, is it really possible to increase our willpower, and if so, what’s the best way to go about it?
Science has some answers that might surprise you.
Why should we care about willpower?
Roy Baumeister, one of the leading researchers on willpower, notes:
“Most of the problems that plague modern individuals in our society — addiction, overeating, crime, domestic violence, sexually transmitted diseases, prejudice, debt, unwanted pregnancy, educational failure, underperformance at school and work, lack of savings, failure to exercise — have some degree of selfcontrol failure as a central aspect.
Psychology has identified two main traits that seem to produce an immensely broad range of benefits: intelligence and self-control. Despite many decades of trying, psychology has not found much one can do to produce lasting increases in intelligence. But self-control can be strengthened. Therefore, self-control is a rare and powerful opportunity for psychology to make a palpable and highly beneficial difference in the lives of ordinary people”
The research on the topic strongly supports the idea that increasing one’s willpower positively affects all the areas of one’s life. People who have more self-control are healthier, they relationships are stronger and more satisfying, they make more money and are more successful at their careers. It’s not surprising that those who have more willpower are also happier.
It seems that making a commitment to work on your willpower might be one of the best decisions that you can make.
What is willpower?
In order to understand how willpower works we first have to define what we mean when we use this word. We all have an idea of what we think it is. However, what do scientists who study this subject define as willpower?
In her book “Maximum Willpower”, Kelly McGonigal, a professor who teaches “The Science of Willpower” class in Stanford, talks about three different aspects of willpower:
“I won’t” power – the ability to resist temptations.
“I will” power – the ability to do what needs to be done.
“I want” power – the awareness of one’s long term goals and desires.
According to McGonigal, willpower is about harnessing these three power of I will, I won’t, and I want in order to achieve your goals and stay out of trouble.
Why do we have willpower?
Willpower is a fascinating phenomenon. In fact, some scientists even go as far as saying that it may be what makes us humans, well, human. That makes sense when you think about: there are no other animals that would have such developed ability to control their impulses. How come we are so special in this sense?
Early humans lived in an environment where the individual was very dependent on the group for survival. One had to be able to control one’s impulses in order to get along with those around him or her. This put a lot of pressure on the brains to develop ways to control impulses that might get individual in trouble.
Our current ability to control our impulses is a result of thousands of years of adaptation to an increasingly complex social environment.
Your brain on willpower: meet the prefrontal cortex
Prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain right behind your forehead and eyes. Throughout our evolutionary history, it was mainly responsible for controlling physical movements (walking, running, lifting, etc.). Over time, it not only got bigger, but also became more connected to other areas of the brain and took on some new functions. Now, prefrontal cortex is responsible for controlling what you do, what you think, and even what you feel.
There are three different areas of prefrontal cortex that control the three different aspects of willpower:
The left region of prefrontal cortex is responsible for “I will” part of willpower.
The right region of prefrontal cortex is responsible for “I won’t” part of willpower.
The middle lower region of prefrontal cortex is responsible for “I wan’t” part of willpower.
Together, these three areas gives us our self-control and self-awareness, or, in other words, our willpower.
One of the best illustrations of the importance of prefrontal cortex are the cases of people who suffered injuries that affected this part of the brain. In 1848 Phineas Gage, a was a quiet, respectful, hard-working foreman. Unfortunately, he got into an accident which resulted in a very serious brain injury that damaged his prefrontal cortex, an injury that changed him forever. Gage’s friends could not recognize him: he turned into an impatient, impulsive individual, virtually the opposite of his former self. Phinea’s Gage is one of the many examples of what happens when a person suffers from prefrontal cortex damage. This makes it clear that willpower isn’t something mystical, but rather one of the many functions of our brain.