Healthy Living: Harnessing Your Willpower- Lessons from the Marshmallow Experiment

Updated 1 year ago

By- Dr. David PrescottLack of Willpower is the Number One Barrier to Positive Health Behavior Change: Many people can identify changes in their behavior which would improve their health or mental health. For example, getting support from others rather than staying isolated can help reduce depression. Improving poor eating habits can lower cholesterol or improve your diabetes. Reducing excessive alcohol use will result in better overall health. However, the number one barrier cited by Americans to making positive behavior change is lack of self-discipline. Self-discipline is not entirely pre-determined at birth. By focusing on certain key factors, you can improve your own willpower and self-discipline. The Marshmallow Experiment: Delay of Gratification Really Does Pay Off: Researchers at Columbia University wanted to study how early children can begin to delay gratification, which is a key component of self-discipline. They offered 4-year olds a treat (a single marshmallow) immediately, or told them that if they could wait a few minutes, they would get more than one marshmallow. But more importantly, they kept track of these 4-year olds until they were teenagers. Those teenagers who had been most able to delay gratification had, on average, higher SAT scores, better ability to handle stress, and better ability to plan. Research Supports the Idea that Willpower Wears Down: As people try to change unhealthy behaviors, they often report that the make an initial change, for example not smoking, but that over time stress wears them down. Psychology research actually suggests that this is true! One key to maintaining a healthy behavior is to try to strengthen your willpower. Tips for Building Up Your Willpower: · Avoid temptations. In the marshmallow study described above, children who stared at the treat were less likely to resist it than those who closed their eyes, turned away or distracted themselves. “Out of sight, out of mind” works when you’re studying, too. When you need to focus, turn off your phone, sign out of email and eliminate any other distractions from your environment.· Make a plan. Having a plan in place may help you resist temptations without having to draw on your willpower, research www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01443410.2010.506003 suggests. Decide ahead of time how you will react to situations that are likely to foil your resolve. If you need to spend the weekend studying, for example, you might tell yourself, “If someone invites me out, I’ll suggest a Sunday night outing as a reward for studying.”· Think you can. How you think about willpower itself is also important. In one study pss.sagepub.com/content/21/11/1686 , researchers found that people who think willpower is a limited resource are more likely to have willpower problems than those who don’t think of it as easily exhausted.· Fuel your willpower. Your brain runs on glucose, or blood sugar. But exerting self-control can leave brain cells consuming glucose at a fast pace. Feeding your brain may help restore your willpower, research www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17279852 suggests. Eating regular meals can keep your blood-sugar levels on an even keel and may help refuel your run-down willpower.· Focus on one goal at a time. The evidence suggests that making a list of New Year’s resolutions isn’t a great idea. That’s because having your willpower become depleted in one realm may reduce willpower in other realms. Instead of trying to adopt better study habits, exercise more and quit smoking all at the same time, take your goals one by one. Once a good habit becomes routine, you no longer need to draw as much on your willpower to maintain it.FOR MORE INFORMATION: American Psychological Association: www.apa.org/helpcenter


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