Study: People With a Lot of Self-Control Are Happier

Improbably enough, people who are better able to resist impulses report being more satisfied with their lives.
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PROBLEM: "Among humankind's most valuable assets" is self-control, according to Wilhelm Hofmann and his team of researchers at the University of Chicago. They define it as "the ability to override or change one's inner responses" and to refrain from acting on impulses. As an immediate consequence of leading lives of constant self-denial, it would seem that people with a lot of self-control aren't likely to derive a lot of pleasure from life, although in the long run they might benefit from the satisfaction of being better able to realize long-term goals. They don't get to enjoy the cronuts, but they get to be thin, healthy, and otherwise better than the rest of us. 

METHODOLOGY: To start, 414 adults completed an online survey, in which they rated their self-control by indicating how much they agreed with 14 statements (such as, "I do certain things that are bad for me, if they are fun"). The participants also reported their current emotional state as well as their overall life satisfaction. Holfmann's team then turned to data from a study in which 205 adults were given smartphones and prompted to report their emotions at random moments throughout the week. At the same time, they were also asked to report whether they were experiencing any desires, and if so, how hard they tried to resist them, and whether they ultimately ended up acting on them.

RESULTS: The more self-control people reported having, the more satisfied they reported being with their lives. And contrary to what the researchers were expecting, people with more self-control were also more likely to be happy in the short-term. In fact, when they further analyzed the data, they found that such people's increased happiness to a large extent accounted for the increased life satisfaction.  

IMPLICATIONS: As they go about their daily lives, people with a lot of self-control appear to generally be in higher spirits; in the long run, they're happier with their lives. To explain why this would be so, the researchers conducted another online survey. What they figured out is that instead of constantly denying themselves, people high in self-control are simply less likely to find themselves in situations where that's even an issue. They don't waste time fighting inner battles over whether or not to eat a second piece of cake. They're above such petty temptations. And that, it would seem, makes them happier ... if still just a little bit sad.


The full study, "Yes, But Are They Happy? Effects of Trait Self-Control on Affective Well-Being and Life Satisfaction" is published in the Journal of Personality.

Presented by

Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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