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The Secret To Self-Control

Hint: it’s not about resisting temptation, as new research reveals

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by Sarah Mahoney

Well-Being
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Psychologists have long known that people with more self-control are usually happier. Not surprisingly, they're generally healthier, and have more money. It must be because they are so good at resisting temptation, whether in the form of cheesecake or bargains on eBay, right?

Not exactly, says Tracy Cheung, a researcher at Utrecht University in the Netherlands: Turns out they are happier because they manage to live in a way that helps them skirt temptation, so they can focus on more positive things than telling themselves no all the time.

“Research has suggested that people who have high self-control generally have good habits and routines that help them strategically navigate through their daily lives,” she says, the kind of adaptive habits that steer them away from problematic temptations and desires.

In her study of 545 people, Cheung finds that the people with the highest levels of self-control actually do very little avoidance. It makes sense, she says: “One can imagine constantly having to inhibit and restrain ourselves is not a very pleasant experience.” So what do these high self-control people do, instead? “They generally have good habits and routines that decrease their chances of running into these problematic temptations, so they are also less likely to run into situations that they have to restrain themselves.” That frees them to “focus on positive gains, such as approaching their aspirations in line with a promotion focus, which then leads to more happiness.” In other words, they learn to focus more on the things they want to do and the skills they need to do them, instead of what they’re trying not to do.

The good news—especially for those of us trying to summon the self-control needed to make any significant change, whether it’s losing 10 pounds or learning new time management skills—is that while self-control is a fairly fixed trait, there is some evidence that we can get better at it.

What helps? Mindfulness meditation has shown some promise, she says. And other researchers have demonstrated that simple healthy living skills—eating well, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep—all make it easier to keep our eyes on the prize.

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