Willpower: Rediscovering an Underrated Strength

One of the most underrated human traits is willpower. We tend to forget that this trait can be our strongest ally when we’re trying to create healthy habits. Recent studies conducted by research psychologists suggest that willpower is a good predictor of academic success, professional advancement, and stable relationships. In addition, it appears to be related to personal happiness levels, mental and physical health, and even your longevity. You can have all the good intentions in the world, but your success will likely be compromised if you lack the perseverance to keep striving toward your goals.

You use willpower to regulate your own behavior every day. It’s the force that helps you curb your most base and selfish impulses and is a means of self-regulation to achieve personal, social, and professional goals. Willpower is fundamental to just about any philosophy of ethics or morality; it makes social life possible, and is the basis of what we call free will.

The notion of willpower implies self-imposed limits and the sublimation of immediate impulses in pursuit of a greater good. Whenever you say no to chocolate cake and opt for a piece of fruit instead, you’re using willpower. When you withstand a nicotine craving, you’re choosing long-term health over the immediate (but eventually lethal) reward of lighting up.

The problem is, willpower actually takes a great deal of effort to develop and maintain and we can use up our supply of it. Psychologists use the term ego depletion to describe how our willpower gets worn down over time. According to the research, the more often people have to say no to their impulses, the less energy they have for analytical thought and creativity. This is true especially over the course of a day. In effect, we use up our willpower as the day goes on. The good news is that the research also suggests that making the exercise of willpower a habit decreases ego depletion.

Getting in the habit of giving up immediate rewards in pursuit of a larger goal gets easier the more you do it. In essence, creating good habits for desired outcomes frees up more willpower to use elsewhere.

Not surprisingly, diet also plays a role in willpower. For example, glucose is the chemical that carries energy to your brain to enable this kind of high-level decision-making, and replenishing your glucose seems to help restore depleted willpower. Thus, opting for a snack with good glucose such as a piece of fresh fruit can actually increase your willpower and keep you on a healthy course.

In essence, then, developing a pattern of good habits and maintaining a healthy diet can increase your willpower and your ability to achieve more of your goals.

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