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willpower - self discipline and our choices for self improvement

Updated on April 18, 2012

What is Willpower?

"Willpower is trying very hard not to do something you want to do very much." - John Ortberg

Willpower takes self discipline. It is a form of self control. We need willpower to restrain ourselves from temptation, to motivate ourselves to accomplish something, and to change our habits.

To have willpower is to have inner strength. There are many things we need willpower for. Willpower - what we choose to use it for, and when we choose to use it can affect all aspects of our everyday doings. Willpower is a common term when it comes to food, weight loss, and overinduldging.

Food and the Pathway to the Brain

Eating causes a reaction in our brain that reinforces a desire to eat more. When our tastebuds come in contact with fat, our brain produces pleasure sensors, which release neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters become heightened and give us cues to get more of the same pleasure. If you have the type of body that responds quickly to those chemicals that make you feel so good, you may struggle with the ability to resist temptations.

We are taught that willpower will help us to do the right thing. While willpower does play a role in overindulging, there are other biological triggers that contribute to the decision to eat or not eat that piece of cake. Self awareness, self control, and self regulation are important in not overeating. If we just let our body rule, we may not make the right decisions. Eating needs to be a conscious decision. But when we make unconscious decisions automatically, we may not be doing what is in our best interest.

Often we may not be able to resist that piece of cake because our brain received subliminal signals that primed us to make a rash decision. However, there are things that can be done to do battle with these unconscious triggers. Fill your environment with the things that trigger an aim you are looking to achieve. Put up photos of people you want to hear them say you did it. Put up photos of places you want to go looking svelte. Have key words and phrases in places you can see to remind you why you don’t need to eat more. Listen to motivational dvds. These will help you look at your current situation and connect it to your bigger desires. The bigger picture will win over the immediate need if you allow it. So it is not about willpower or deprivation. It is about reminding yourself about your priorities. It is about letting each part of your brain cooperate together.

Pleasure Centers in Our Brain

The sight and smell of food activates pleasure sensors in our brain. It becomes rewarding to savor the taste of this food. Food creates pleasure pathways in the brain that increase the demand for more pleasure. Left unchecked, our brain wants this pleasure and convinces us it is for our greater good to have it. The brain is very complex. We have hormones called dopamine that surge when the brain senses pleasure. The brain remembers this pleasure and seeks more. When seeking the pleasure becomes the most important thing, control and the ability to make logical decisions become harder to do.

Resisting Temptations and Children

Nearlly 40 years ago, a psychologist named Walter Mischel conducted an experiment with four year olds and a sweet treat. He put marshmallows and cookies before the kids and told them they could have one now, or two if they waited for 15 minutes. Some kids ate the goodies before the experimenters finished talking.Other children sat on their hands, turned away or created imaginery friends as a way to distract themselves.

Mischel’s daughters attended the nursery school where he did the experiment, so he was able to follow the children and note whether the children who could wait had other factors that he could link with delayed gratification. He found that kids who had less willpower and ate the treat right away scored lower on their SATs, had a higher body mass index and a little greater risk of substance abuse in later years.

Although his observations are generalizations and not true for everyone who ate the sweets right away, he found that there are certain personality traits that may play out more or less among the two groups. Kids who were able to delay their gratification tended to be more methodical. Kids who couldn’t resist, tended to be more drawn to new things and had more of an exploratory nature.

Scientists found the children 40 years later. Now as adults, the psychologists chose 60 participants who represented extremes by either those who gave in very quickly, or those who held themselves back the entire time. This time the researchers showed them happy and fearful faces. They had to push a button after they saw one, but not the other. The happy faces, unknowingly to the participants represented the marshmallows and cookies because people usually prefer happy faces and are more likely to push the button for a happy face, even if they are not supposed to.

The psychologists found the same children who couldn’t resist the sweets when they were four, were the same adults who pressed the button even when they weren’t supposed to. The scientists observed that they couldn’t stop themselves when they were 4 and couldn’t stop them selves when they were nearly 44.

The psychologists scanned the brains with an fMRI and found circuits in the brain that are associated with how the brain processes rewards and is connected to addiction. They believe this reward center may be more sensitive to cues that are important aspects to them, and so they have less resistance and will power. This research may eventually help us to improve our self control and even assist people in battling obesity and addictions.

As a four year old, would you have been able to wait 15 minutes to get 2 treats?

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Can We Use Willpower for More than One Thing at a Time?

Even under the best of circumstances most people do not have the tenacity to have willpower forever. Willpower has been found to be a limited resource, which would also explain why New Year’s resolutions usually do not last. It is even harder if people try to control their will power for more than one thing at a time. If you are trying to quit smoking and trying to lose weight simultaneously, you probably will not succeed. It is too much mentally to try to deal with. It has been found that 88% of all resolutions fail and most fail within the first six weeks of the new year.

We are creatures of habits and if we try to give up too many of our bad habits at once, we can’t do any of them.

Willpower often begins with self awareness. Willpower is a higher thinking process done in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is located behind the forehead. In addition to willpower, the prefrontal cortex helps us stay focused, handles our short term memory and solves abstract problems. When we ask our brain to use willpower, it is one more thing it must handle that it may not be able to devote enough processes to.

Researchers did an experiment with undergrad students at Stanford University. One group of students were given a 2 digit number to remember and the next group were given 7 digits to remember. They were told to stroll down the hall and given two snack options - a bowl of fruit and a slice of chocolate cake. More than two times the number of the students with 7 numbers to memorize chose the cake over the students with 2 numbers to memorize. The scientists believe the 7 digits took up more brain space and made it harder to not be tempted by the cake. When our brain is overloaded with information, our willpower is lower. It doesn’t take much (only a 5 digit difference to overload our brain before it can’t resist temptation.

This may explain why we eat more when we are stressed. Our ability to resist is less when more of our brain is occupied. Research is suggesting that self control and will power may not be a character issue, as much as a brain issue.

Willpower is a Limited Brain Resource

The approach people take to dieting also needs to be analyzed. Experiments have shown that people who don’t eat have lower glucose levels and can’t think as clearly. Willpower takes energy and if the brain is starved, a person may not be able to have as much self control. Moderation, not starvation may be a key to willpower and weight loss.

There are many factors to willpower, including feeling overwhelmed. A person who has too many decisions to make, may suffer from what is known as decision fatigue. A tired brain may not be able to resist temptation and make better choices.

There is much more to learn about the brain and willpower. What we do know, is that since willpower is a limited brain resource, we should be choosy about where we want to apply our self control. You kind of need willpower to use your willpower for the things that will have the best chances of success for you.

What do you need to use your willpower for?

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    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 5 years ago

      Hi Andromida, Willpower has a lot to do with our perspective and attitude. The more we understand, the more we can control ourselves. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • andromida profile image

      syras mamun 6 years ago

      For me sustaining the willpower for a longer period of time was a challenge.Reading books on various topics helped me to developed some kind of willpower to control my bad habits.Thanks.

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 6 years ago

      Larry, It is nice to get to know you. I look forward to your comments. I will be visiting you too.

    • Larry Okeke profile image

      Larry Okeke 6 years ago from Enugu, Nigeria

      I see. i'll definitely be reading your other hubs.

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 6 years ago

      Hi Larry, Well, I am in the mental health field. So I guess I owe you a dollar. But I try to make all my hubs interesting, no matter what topic I write about. Let me know what you think of my hubs on different topics. It is nice to know you are a sharp and observant guy.

    • Larry Okeke profile image

      Larry Okeke 6 years ago from Enugu, Nigeria

      hey! you didnt lay claims to my one dollar note?

    • profile image

      michelle lee hall 6 years ago

      i like this

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 6 years ago

      Hi Tom, If we all had more willpower, who knows what we really could accomplish! Thanks for the up votes and as you know, I am always happy when you stop by.

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 6 years ago

      Hi Billy, Thanks for stopping by to read my hub. I appreciate your kind words, and I am glad I gave you something to think about.

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 6 years ago

      Hi DFH, Dogs and people need willpower. But I believe dogs are better at self control than people are. When you are working with people, it is good to realize that there are differences even among their self control ability. I am glad this info is useful to you. Thanks for your comments.

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 6 years ago

      Hi Larry, Thanks for the very high compliments. I am very glad you enjoyed the hub and I appreciate your up votes. All the best to you and thanks for stopping by.

    • kashmir56 profile image

      Thomas Silvia 6 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hi my friend, willpower and self discipline = self improvement. Great information and so well explained and something we all need to do.

      Vote up and more !!!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Well-documented hub and excellent food for thought!

    • profile image

      DoItForHer 6 years ago

      I have an extreme amount of trouble when people ask me to help train their dogs. They want to have well-trained animals, but choose to spend their energy making excuses instead of exercising a little self-discipline. This Hub helps me understand a little better why that is.

      And it certainly does not apply solely to dog training- it applies to all aspects of life!

    • Larry Okeke profile image

      Larry Okeke 6 years ago from Enugu, Nigeria

      This is not a child's hub i must say. The professional touch is captivating and i bet 1 dollar note on the fact that the author has a couple of ties with medicine. Excellent hub, bro. Voted up and useful


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