By David Joel Miller.
Of late it has become standard practice to decry the shortage of willpower here in America, maybe the shortage of willpower on planet earth. How did this worldwide shortage develop?
The shortage does not seem to be of recent origin. Writers from the Plymouth Colony, writing shortly after the founding in the 1620’s expressed their concern that people could not display significant willpower to avoid breaking the laws. I am told that there are passages in the Bible about a lack of willpower though I am not sure if it is found in the book of Leviticus or not. Presumably, this worldwide shortage of willpower has been going on for thousands of years.
If we can find oil deep under the sea and rocks on the moon why is it that there has been no significant discovery of additional willpower in all these millenniums? Perhaps we have been looking for the wrong thing in the wrong places. Behaviorists, like Martin and Pear, believe they have discovered the source of the willpower shortage. They say there are in fact two very different creatures that we are calling willpower and that we keep looking for the wrong one in the wrong place. Could that be?
Willpower One might more properly be called determination. This is the willpower required to do something that we know would be good for us but that is unpleasant or painful while we are doing it. Exercise is a good example. We all know we should do more exercise. It has all those positive benefits, like losing weight and being healthier. But it is hard to think about doing something that involves effort and possible unpleasant pain when there is that nice warm comfy couch sitting there and there are 36 new movies on the cable that beg to be watched.
It takes a special brand of willpower to give up a current pleasure or reward, sitting on the couch and watching movies, to secure far-off benefits like weight loss and improved health. To continue to engage in this effort for a deferred gain we need lots of positive encouragements and reinforcements. This is why people who exercise in groups where they encourage each other are more likely to succeed than those who try to do an exercise program alone.
The problem with shortages of this first kind of willpower is that the current negative of the action does not seem to have much connection to a far-off positive result like weight loss. It is hard to make yourself do something today for a gain a long time from now. This kind of willpower deficiency also accounts for the lack of retirement savings of many citizens.
One way to offset this is to turn the negative into a positive. Instead of exercising, pick a hobby that involves activity. Square dancing comes to mind. You get some positive people interactions coupled with the advantage of exercise and it could be fun.
Will Power Two, maybe we should call this self-denial, is the kind of willpower needed to get ourselves to give up something that we know is not good for us but is so much fun. In this type of willpower, the problem is to skip those extra goodies that put on the pounds. We know that obesity is bad. And we know that eating a few extra calories will over time pack the pounds on. But it is hard to connect in our minds the extra pounds and the health impairment a year from now with the one extra cookie. Usually, the one extra cookie wins out.
In trying to cut down on things like extra cookies or cigarettes the challenge is to give up a current pleasure for a far off good. Addictions fall in this class of shortage of willpower. One behavioral approach is to create a script that you say to your self. Behaviorists call this self-instruction. You might say to yourself that you do not need that drug or that cookie and that you are looking good. Substance abusers find that the more time they spend with people who encourage them to stay sober the more likely they are to succeed.
At this point, we are almost a month into the year. How many of you have given up on your New Years resolution? Did you read my series on stages of change? Think about where you are in this change process and how you might start moving forward.
If you are short on willpower, what positive things could you use to reward yourself for doing those hard to do things? What could you do to make giving up those current pleasures to secure a long-term goal feel less like a sacrifice?
Anyone out there have an experience to share that involves making a change and increasing your willpower?
Staying connected with David Joel Miller
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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.