Can Self-Control Make You Happier ?

In the late 1960s and early 1970s psychologist Walter Mischel a professor at Stanford University and his team conduct a series of studies known as “Stanford marshmallow experiment” on children mostly on age of 4 to 6, on deferred gratification. Each one had to sit alone in a room free from destruction. The children were offered a small treat of their choice such as marshmallow (or cookie, pretzel) placed on a table. They were told that they can eat the marshmallow straight away or they can wait for fifteen minutes to have another one as reward.

The researcher found that only one third of the children are able to delay their gratification and thereby rewarded. Scientist later made a follow up study when the subjects were in their 40s. They found that children who are able to delay their gratification have more success in their life, better academic performance, better health and also enjoys more fulfilling life.

The study does not cover those who learned self-control in later life. But now we know that achieving self-control in any stage of life would have a profound effect in later life. Because self-control gives the ability to delay gratification and works on achieving long term goal instead of behaving impulsively on short term temptation.


In our society, we see people with higher self-control avoid drugs and alcohol, exercise regularly and eat properly. They don’t waste money on gambling. They have plan for their future and save better for future. As they have less health issues, they live longer maintaining good health. Students with self-discipline have good academic performance.

But successful people may not necessarily meant to be happy people. Individual with more self-control may have higher academic achievement, better health, more interpersonal success – but how can they be happy when they are depriving themselves from their desire every now and then. After all regulating ones action more frequently, coinciding with high standard for oneself, meeting social expectation, holding back from temptation seem to result in living a dull, prosaic, joyless life.

To find out if people with more self-control are happier, psychologist Wilhelm Hofmann and his team of researchers at the University of Chicago completed an online survey on 414 adults. Contrary to popular belief they found that people with more self-control are not only happier in the short-term but also experience greater life satisfaction. Surprisingly they also do not need to self-regulate very often as they face fewer instances of depriving problematic desire.

But how can those denial make them happier ? To explain why this would be so, psychologists have figured out that people with higher self-control are happier because they can focus on positive gains for long run instead of what they are losing in short run.

Self-disciplined people have greater promotion focus and less avoidance focus. The promotion focus is concerned with growth, attainment and fulfillment, whereas avoidance focus is concerned with missing an opportunity of instant gratification. When self-controlled people are presented with an opportunity to grab one more piece of cheesecake they focus on staying slim. They don’t see that as an opportunity forgo or denial but see that as an action promoting health. Every action coinciding long-term goal pursuit can enhance their happiness.

Promotion focus encourages missing out on an opportunity of short term gratification to accomplish something greater for long run. Although people with self-control are not immune to motivational conflicts but for most of the time they can manage to choose the more virtuous. In the end, favoring the more virtuous give them a sense of accomplishment, leading to greater life satisfaction.

You would notice that, self-disciplined people have control over their environment more. They manage enough time to finish their project, buy paper before the printer is out of paper, shop grocery before they are finished, pay dues before fined, don’t have trouble with their boss or supervisor very often.

The most common desires we deprive ourselves everyday are to eat, drink, provoke, leisure, sex, sleep etc. Without self-control, impact of these denials are high enough to drain most of our mental energy. Dr. Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University, in his research finds that people with lower self-control spend more time on fighting against their impulses while people with higher self-control avoid those situation.

People with better self-control tend to befriend with disciplined people which in turn help them to implement discipline in their own life. They consciously avoid to go to bars with friends who have drinking problem, but play tennis, golf or some physical sports. Instead of going to a casino to lose all, they used to go to gym where they meet people with similar mind.

Self-disciplined individual are more concerned about protecting self. They also have prevention focus which motivated them to prevent themselves from doing things that are harmful for long run. They find it as moral duty or obligation to not doing any self-harming behavior. They can ultimately take joy and satisfaction from serving those valued goal pursuit behavior.

Related Article