Monday, November 7, 2011

A book that matters

I just finished reading Willpower:  Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.  You should read this book, all of you.  Often I will recommend a book as a very good way to understand a topic or as very amusing but rarely would I suggest that a book could seriously improve your life.  This book could seriously improve your life.

I have always been intrigued by the subject of delaying gratification and self control and ever since I can remember I have taken these things to extremes.  The classic experiment in this field is the marshmallow test - give a child a marshmallow and tell them they can eat it but that if they do not eat it for 15 minutes they can have another one.  (I was the sort of kid who, upon receiving the second one, would ask if I could wait another 15 minutes to get a third.  I don't know that my level of saving and hoarding is actually beneficial, mind.)  The experiment showed that kids who waited for the second marshmallow had better lives by nearly any measure because self control is so critical to making good choices and ending up happy.  Willpower outlines very clearly what self control actually is in physical terms and how understanding the way that self control works allows us to understand why and when we make bad decisions so that we can avoid those situations.  The book won't tell you what choices to make but rather how to make sure that you are in a frame of mind to make the decisions required to live the life that you choose.

I really like that in Willpower the authors make it clear that losing self control isn't a moral choice but rather one that can be explained in medical terms.  It is a break from the mindset that people who can't control their spending / weight / compulsive internet usage are simply weak or bad.  Self control is shown to be something that is very much affected by our food, how long we have been awake, how many decisions we have had to make so far in the day and other environmental factors.  It is also something that we can practice becoming better at!  The book details ways in which we can practice self control and by doing so improve our willpower.  The book talks about David Blaine who is known for crazy feats of endurance and self control like sitting in a glass box without food for 44 days and how he prepares himself for such incredible tests of willpower.  He spends every part of every day utterly, totally regimented and does everything in precisely the correct way, allowing himself no deviation.  In short he prepares his mind for feats of self control in the same way athletes prepare their bodies for feats of strength.

So much of our society's ills can be traced to a breakdown of self control that I can't help but think that if everyone read this book and took the lessons to heart we would all be tremendously better off.  Accidents are usually preventable if people have the self control to prepare ahead of time.  Debt, addiction, and unhealthy life habits can be headed off at the pass if the person involved understands when they are most vulnerable to temptation and how to arrange life such that they have enough willpower left to make the correct choice when the critical time arrives.  Knowing what they *should* do is rarely the biggest problem for people, the issue is managing to do the right thing when the time arrives.

The book also talks about the benefits of religion in assisting with willpower.  It turns out that people can substantially improve their self control by outsourcing decision making to a higher power.  Rather than considering the pros and cons they can simply decide that "God doesn't want me to drink" and this helps them to do what they know they need to do.  The authors are agnostics but they do recognize the benefits such a belief set can have on self control.  It is of course a bit beyond the scope of the book but we should note that outsourcing your decision making to God also has the potential drawback that you might end up deciding that "God wants me to strap explosives to myself and kill random people" and avoid thinking about the pros and cons of that, which is somewhat less beneficial.

I think I should take the book's advice to heart and try to do things to improve my self control.  A few months ago I decided to improve my posture and to consciously sit up straight and walk tall all the time but now I am looking for something new to do.  After a bit of considering I decided to refuse to watch porn for 6 months.  Being a pretty normal sort of 30 something male I usually watch porn regularly but in small doses and have done so for as long as the internet has been easily available to me.  I see absolutely nothing wrong with watching porn so long as doing so isn't being detrimental to the rest of a person's life but I do think that it is the sort of thing that is unnecessary and yet potentially challenging to cut out completely.  I will think of it as a couple of extras pushups every day for my willpower muscle.

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