How Your Belief of Willpower Affects Happiness
Willpower can be a tricky mistress. Never around when you need it most.
Unfortunately, it’s a key component of behavior change. So if you are planning on sticking to that diet, getting more exercise, or controlling your spending habits you need a healthy dose of willpower.
You may have heard that willpower is like fuel. You only have so much before you run out.
But hold on, because researchers are debating if willpower is really a limited resource. There have been recent studies showing this theory falls short.
Researchers are now discovering that your mindset about willpower can affect your daily life. Believing that it’s a resource that is in short supply or that’s unlimited can even have an affect on your level of happiness.
The research comes from a team of researchers from the University of Zurich. Published in the Journal of Personality, they performed 3 different studies looking at beliefs of willpower and well-being.
The first was a simple survey that consisted of questions for the participants. Those subjects who viewed willpower as an unlimited resource generally had a more positive view of life.
Okay, great. But by itself a survey probably wouldn’t hold that much weight in the scientific community. The results would be somewhat superficial.
Naturally, they dug a little deeper.
Their other two studies began by surveying undergrads and their beliefs at the beginning of the semester. Six months later, around exam time, they followed up with them.
Here’s what they found.
People who saw willpower as unlimited were more satisfied with life in general. Also, when their academic lives became stressful, these students were still able to maintain a more positive outlook. In contrast, people who viewed willpower as limited had bigger declines in happiness.
Researchers were careful to look for other factors in their results. They looked at reported levels of self-control, level of a student’s optimism and pessimism, as well as confidence in their abilities.
Even after looking at these factors, it was belief in self-control that remained the relevant factor in their level of well-being.
Don’t Stop Believing
Researchers also noted a small behavior that differed between the two groups of people:
Another theoretically important finding of the present research is that people with a nonlimited theory seem to become more efficient in their personal goal striving as demands increase, instead of becoming less efficient as people with a limited theory.
So those that view willpower as an unlimited resource are better able to adjust to life’s pressures. Suprisingly, they become better at reaching for their goals, which has an effect on their happiness. The authors of the study note this as well in their conclusion:
In sum, willpower theories seem to indirectly affect change in life satisfaction through change in goal progress and change in effective goal striving.
The Future of Willpower
While the popular theory of ego-depletion is still widely popular and influential, scientists are finding several holes in the theory. What researchers thought they knew about willpower is changing, and belief about willpower could just be one factor.
This is a different line of research into willpower, but an important one. The fact that students handled adversity and rose to the challenge when times got tough goes against the idea of ego-depletion.
No doubt we will see more on the topic, and further studies will hopefully uncover the mechanisms behind how beliefs of willpower can affect our effort.
Mindsets are a powerful thing. And believing that you have an unlimited supply of willpower may certaintly boost your well-being and goal pursuit.