Revered by the Victorians, willpower is staging a comeback: It’s the topic of several new books, most recently Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and New York Times science writer John Tierney.
According to Willpower’s co-authors, Americans jettisoned this bedrock virtue in their post-WWII rush toward instant gratification. Now, as a partial corrective, Baumeister and Tierney have penned this lively screed on the benefits of mastering your urges. It’s a book that shuns Old School moralizing — no “sermons against bare ankles” here, they promise — in favor of data collected during experiments conducted by Baumeister and other researchers from the 1980s on.
Intriguingly, those findings support a couple of 19th-century notions once dismissed as unscientific: that self-control is vital to success of many stripes, and that willpower hinges on a sort of “mental energy” that can be drawn down — but also replenished, and even fortified, through exercise.
“We want to tell you what’s been learned about human behavior,” Baumeister and Tierney declare, “and how you can use it to change yourself for the better.” If that makes Willpower a self-help manual, credit the book with being more carefully documented — and much better written — than most such guides. It should be noted, however, that the authors share with their less-credentialed self-improvement peers a tendency to make the same points time and again, as well as some fuzziness on the terminology front. The words willpower and self-control are used virtually interchangeably throughout; if they are indeed synonyms, a paragraph noting same would have been welcome. And though the clinical research they illuminate is frequently provocative, the actions they propose for strengthening willpower often seem obvious in the extreme.
It is fascinating, for example, to learn that exerting willpower — eating healthful radishes instead of the tasty cookies on the same table, say — leads to a slowdown in the part of the brain that fosters self-control. This “ego depletion,” as Baumeister calls it, means that if one demand on your willpower is followed immediately by another, you’re much more likely to give up and give in.
It is even more absorbing to read the authors’ claim that this failure may have its source in physiology: They point to several experiments indicating that the exercise of self-control lowers the body’s levels of glucose, the sugar that fuels brain activity.
But it is far less beguiling to be told that the key to sustained self-control is proper nutrition (to supply the glucose you need) and plenty of rest (because sleep deprivation impairs glucose processing). This is basically a scientific rewording of the timeworn advice not to shop when you’re hungry, or not to make important choices when you’re tired: “It takes willpower to make decisions” is the less-than-earth-shattering conclusion the authors draw from one series of experiments.
By the same token, it will come as no surprise to members of Alcoholics Anonymous or Weight Watchers that setting daily goals and submitting to group monitoring to ensure you attain them boosts your confidence and your ability to meet long-term willpower challenges. The authors do add a valuable update on monitoring — a crucial ingredient of self-mastery — by reviewing online services that track your computer use (or misuse) and self-regulation technologies that surveil everything from how many calories you burn to how much sleep you get. Baumeister and Tierney likewise make good use of a surprising study — working to improve posture strengthened subjects’ self-control in unrelated tasks — to spotlight the importance of short-term exercises in developing willpower stamina over the long haul.
Equally eye-opening is Willpower’s defense of video games as self-control builders (“you need to focus your attention, learn intricate rules, and follow precise steps to reach a goal”). But that’s the exception in a disappointing chapter entitled “Raising Strong Children,” which prescribes rules of thumb that parents have been swapping in parks and on playgrounds for years: Set limits, provide structure, create clear expectations — and impose consistent penalties for breaking them.
It’s not that any of this isn’t true; it’s just that not terribly much of it is new. And in that sense, Willpower merely buttresses some familiar nostrums: Good habits reinforce willpower; self-control enables you to get along better with other people. It’s handy to have all that information summed up in a highly readable text studded with anecdotes about everyone from Anthony Trollope to Oprah Winfrey, and the authors’ breezy, user-friendly style ideally serves their underlying purpose. Striving to make willpower more palatable, Baumeister and Tierney tout this Victorian virtue with a decidedly 21st-century spin on its pleasure-giving potential. “Self-control,” they conclude, is “essential for savoring your time on earth and sharing joy with the people you love.”
Will that insight motivate anyone to stop smoking? Will it motivate us to quit wasting so much time visiting self-indulgent websites? Hard to say, but Willpower’s admonitions are likely to stiffen a few spines — or, at the very least, to improve our posture.
Wendy Smith is a contributing editor at The American Scholar.