09/07/2014 07:17 BST | Updated 07/09/2014 06:59 BST

Want to be Happy? Practice Self-Control

You tell yourself that you will:

lose a few pounds, and then you order dessert.

be careful with your money, and then you buy shoes on a whim.

be more kind and supportive, and then you argue over something trivial.

get started on your work, and then you watch cat videos on the internet.

Lapses in self-control are a great source of frustration for human beings. Habitual indulgence of impulses or avoidance of discomfort can keep us from acting on important goals and values. This gap between what we feel is important and how we spend our time and energy leads to dissatisfaction and unnecessary struggle. An absence of self-control is strongly correlated with depression, anxiety, and low quality of life.

The flipside of this is that the ability to follow through on commitments is one of the greatest contributors to happiness and success. Research shows that self-control has a significant positive impact on physical health, psychological well-being, academic and work performance, and quality of interpersonal relationships.

Willpower has received a lot of attention lately. A good way to exhaust willpower is to treat impulses and urges as problems that need to be resisted. In general, people with healthy self-discipline are more focused on approaching goals than they are on avoiding obstacles. Additionally, what you believe about willpower makes a difference. Not only are people who view willpower as an unlimited resource more successful self-regulators, their bodies even use food energy differently than people who think of willpower as something that diminishes when used.

Many people argue that a life of self-control is boring and rigid. What about spontaneity? Doing what we feel like whenever we feel like it is not spontaneity - it is the prioritization of urges over importance. Knowing that you can consciously choose your response based on what matters most to you is an incredible source of freedom and confidence. To be truly spontaneous is to consciously exercise your free will in any circumstance.

How can we build the skill of self-control? One proven method begins with mindful awareness - there is a very strong correlation between control of attention and control of behavior. The good news is that attentional control is a skill that responds well to practice. The better news is that this practice is simple and can be applied to any situation.

The next time you find yourself feeling resistance to acting on a commitment, try this:

Observe the sensations and thoughts of resistance and identify these as nothing more than products of electrical activity in your nervous system.

Open your posture by taking a gentle breath, expanding your chest and spine, and relaxing your shoulders and belly

Focus on what matters most to you and the next valuable action

Commit by taking that action or scheduling that action immediately

Like any skill, you will find increased success with practice. The key here is that you are not trying to get rid of the sensations and thoughts of resistance, you are simply observing and accepting them as part of your human experience. This creates the clarity and space to choose a response based on what you are truly committed to.


Bowlin, S. L., & Baer, R. A. (2012). Relationships between mindfulness, self-control, and psychological functioning. Personality and Individual Differences, 52(3), 411-415.

Cheung, T. T., Gillebaart, M., Kroese, F., & De Ridder, D. (2014). Why are people with high self-control happier? The effect of trait self-control on happiness as mediated by regulatory focus. Personality and Social Psychology, 5, 722.

Hofmann, W., Luhmann, M., Fisher, R. R., Vohs, K. D., & Baumeister, R. F. (2013). Yes, But Are They Happy? Effects of Trait Self‐Control on Affective Well‐Being and Life Satisfaction. Journal of personality.

Job, V., Dweck, C. S., & Walton, G. M. (2010). Ego depletion--Is it all in your head? Implicit theories about willpower affect self-regulation. Psychological science.

Leary, M. R., Adams, C. E., & Tate, E. B. (2006). Hypo‐Egoic Self‐Regulation: Exercising Self‐Control by Diminishing the Influence of the Self. Journal of personality, 74(6), 1803-1832.

Magen, E., Kim, B., Dweck, C. S., Gross, J. J., & McClure, S. M. (2014). Behavioral and neural correlates of increased self-control in the absence of increased willpower. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201408991.

Tangney, J. P., Baumeister, R. F., & Boone, A. L. (2004). High self‐control predicts good adjustment, less pathology, better grades, and interpersonal success. Journal of personality, 72(2), 271-324.

Have a practice that works for you? I invite you to share your experience in the comment section below so that others will benefit.

Dave Mochel is the founder of Applied Attention; a company dedicated to teaching people how to close the gap between what is most important and how they spend their time and energy. He translates research in neuroscience, behavior, and performance into simple principles and practices that can be incorporated into any activity or organization. The result of his work is reduced stress and anxiety with improved performance, relationships, and quality of life. For more information, visit

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