Is the will the strongest force in the universe? Perhaps, if it could be leashed.
But most of us have difficulty leashing our will enough to offer the last cookie to everyone before gulping it down. I’m apparently not the only one wondering about our collective will. Adam Bornstein, reflecting on the USA women’s soccer team’s performance against Brazil at the World Cup, mused about it in his blog post, “The 3 biggest fitness lies“:
I found myself wondering if an entire country could channel the same relentless will to succeed.
I’ve often thought that if I’d ever gone back to school and gone into psychology, I would want to explore will (aka volition, self-control, self-discipline, self-regulation) among outliers. You see, my late grandfather is an outlier. His parents were alcoholics, the family lived hand to mouth, moving place to place in Oklahoma within the Choctaw nation. Of his nine siblings, only he and the eldest of his sisters escaped the poverty and alcoholism of that crowd. My grandfather retired with a respectable income (from two retirements) and a nice little nest egg. He began smoking when he was nine. He gave it up cold turkey in his early 70s after watching his brother-in-law die of emphysema. That’s willpower.
I think of him and wonder what it was that made him and his sister different. What was it that made them two of the few to overcome their conditioning, their childhood disadvantages to escape the trajectory anyone would have predicted for them?
In today’s attempt to find answers about how to harness willpower, I turned to some academic journals. Most of the articles are written in the context of rehabilitation, whether from addiction, heart attacks or strokes, but they still have some applicability for those of us trying to change a lifetime of bad habits into a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise (whether CrossFit or something else) and weight loss.
Generally, we start with goal-setting: I want to lose 100 pounds, for example. That’s a big goal; I’m trying to slice it into easier chunks, like diarying what I eat with MyPlate and trying to make eating healthy within limits as a daily practice rather than obsessing over the scale (which, I confess, is a struggle). And I try to CrossFit as much as I can; as I said in my last post, this month has been challenging because some of my health issues are trying to resurface (but I did my WOD today, thank you very much; I feel shaky, nauseated and headachey, but at least I accomplished something).
But even goal-setting can be troublesome. Dr. Richard J. Siegert, Dr. Kathryn M. McPherson and Dr. William J. Taylor note in a paper published in Disability and Rehabilitation, a professional journal, that
The goal-setting process for many patients (and clinicians) is marked by frustration, difficulty and perceived failure.
Why? Because, they say, that the people setting the goals are largely the professionals, and the patients don’t really take an active role in deciding what their goals are. If you do not set the goal yourself, you are not emotionally vested in it.
Shocked? No, not me. As long as it was other people telling me what I should do and how I should do it, or when I set goals that were really more about trying to please others, I never achieved them. I had to set my own goals based on my own desires, and it wasn’t about “knowing” what I should do. Most of us “know” what to do to fix our weight and fitness problems: exercise more, eat less (and better).
It’s kind of like the neurologist who idiotically told me that I was “too intelligent to commit suicide” when he put me on a drug that made me think about it all the time. Or the numskull who sat in my car and said “Only stupid people must be drug addicts.” No, no, no! It’s not about intelligence; it’s about pain (at least in those two cases). Suicides and drug addicts are generally trying to escape their pain. And relatively recent studies have demonstrated that emotional pain is perceived by the brain in the same place as physical pain. In fact, emotional pain may even be worse.
Food often plays the same role in fatties’ lives; we eat our emotions away. In fact, that’s one of the reasons prospective lap band surgery patients are given psychiatric evaluations first; profound depression can kick in after the surgery because the patients no longer have food available as a way to comfort themselves.
So doctors Siegert, McPherson and Taylor suggest that not only should the goals be set by the patients, but that the emotional impact of goal-setting be included in deciding on goals. They look at it through the lenses of self-regulation, which seems to indicate that people have hierarchical goals that emanate from their sense of self. In other words, if you see yourself as a kind person, you will set specific goals that are consistent with kindness. And the bigger the gap between the goals and your sense of self, the more emotional interference you’ll have with reaching your goals.
So, if you see yourself as undisciplined (or, as I would say about myself, in a more positive light, spontaneous and easy-going), then goals that interfere with your sense of self can be tough. I do see myself as spontaneous (and wildly independent), so making myself settle into any routine has been tough. But I’m reframing the idea of routine as “inflexible” by allowing myself flexibility (to some extent) in timing and, more importantly, in seeing that healthy routines make it more possible for me to do things I’d like spontaneously. It’s been the unhealthy lifestyle that has chained me to limited activities, not a healthy routine.
So, for success, you have to fit your goals into your self-image. And then, you must make sure you don’t sabotage yourself with goals that are unattainable or delayed (back to the “slice it up” scenario). Quoth said docs:
[A] wide range of emotional reactions occurred after brain injury or stroke, with the four most common responses being frustration, sadness, fear and worry … For example, frustration arises when goals that were quickly and easily achieved previously, now require an immense effort and are achieved very slowly or not at all. Similarly, sadness arises when goals that were considered important for maintaining an ideal self-image now seem unattainable.
So, if you’re frustrated or sad in the pursuit of your goals, perhaps you need to evaluate whether they are realistic (for example, in the CrossFit world, have you scaled down the WODs sufficiently) or consistent with your view of yourself.
Another possibility is that you don’t believe in free will. Kathleen D. Vohs and Roy F. Baumeister assert in an editorial called “Addiction and Free Will,” published in Addiction Research and Theory, that if you believe you have no control over your actions, you have difficulty changing them:
Belief in addiction is often tantamount to a disbelief in free will, at least within the circumscribed behavioral sphere involving the addiction. Our recent research has suggested that such a belief can cause problems.
The idea that people are not fully in control of their own behavior stretches back into antique notions of demonic possession, divine command, and other supernatural volition. In modern life, people often claim reduced responsibility for their own actions by citing social factors, societal oppression, emotional distress, external provocation, mental illness, drugs, and other factors.
In a curious parallel to ideas of demonic possession, modern science has promoted the view that people are not free to choose or control their actions …
Addiction is a particularly potent form of the belief that people cannot control and are not responsible for their actions.
[Researchers] found that making people disbelieve in free will caused them to cheat more than others on a test, especially when they could make money by cheating. Further work has confirmed the antisocial effects of disbelieving in free will. These effects include increased aggression toward other innocent persons and reduced helpfulness toward needy strangers … Disbelief in free will seems to make people less likely to think for themselves, as reflected in greater conformity to other people’s judgments … and lesser willingness to articulate personal lessons from their own guilty misbehaviors.
Now, see, I used to think “free will” versus “predestination” was largely a theological discussion with little practical point; from our point of view, we make choices, so why does it matter if they’re predetermined or not? Apparently it does matter. If you don’t believe that you have control over what you’re doing, you won’t exercise your will to change when change is painful.
Of course, we aren’t in control of everything. I have a genetic defect that makes it harder for my body to make enough serotonin, setting me up for a cascade of problems that manifest physically and psychologically. Recognizing this reality, Vohs and Baumeister come up with a rather brilliant solution:
Our view is that the debate about free will in addiction, like the broader debate about free will in all human behavior, is unlikely to be won by either extreme view … Self-control is an important form of what people understand as free will, and the capacity for self-control is real but limited – thus neither complete nor completely lacking. The traditional notion of willpower may be useful here, especially if one understands willpower as a kind of psychological energy that fluctuates as people use it up and then re-charge it … Free will is a partial, sometime thing.
So, yes, Green Lantern, you’ve got a powerful force there. But it’s not as stable as your mythos would have it. You do have days when imposing your will is easier and other times when doing what you know is the right thing for your body is tough. But it is there. It is strong. And it can change your life.