While psychologists continue to debate whether or not willpower is a finite resource, a related strand of research is exploring the implications for the rest of us depending on whether we personally believe willpower is unlimited. For instance, there’s research showing that people who think willpower is unlimited tend to recover better from tasks that require self-control than those who think willpower is finite, akin to the fuel in a car.
Now a new study, just published in the Journal of Personality, has looked at the broader implications of people’s beliefs about willpower. Katharina Bernecker and her colleagues report that people who see willpower as unlimited tend to be happier with life, and this is at least in part because they’re better able to cope when life gets more demanding.
The researchers began by surveying 258 people (average age 39; 163 women) participating in internet forums about stress and burnout. Those who said they believed willpower is unlimited (they agreed with statements like “Your mental stamina fuels itself; even after a strenuous mental exertion you can continue doing more of it”) tended to score higher on satisfaction with life and positive moods.
Of course you could interpret these initial results as simply showing that happier people tend to believe that willpower is unlimited, rather than the willpower beliefs influence happiness. To shed more light on this, the researchers conducted two more investigations with hundreds of university students, surveying their willpower beliefs and life satisfaction at the start of a university year, and then again six months later, just before exam time.
Not only were beliefs in unlimited willpower associated with more life satisfaction and better moods at the start of the year, but also with more sustained positive well-being as the exam period approached. That is, students who initially endorsed the idea that willpower is finite tended to suffer sharper drops in happiness and mood as exam time drew near, as compared with their peers who said they believed willpower is limitless. Conversely, earlier well-being was not related to later beliefs about willpower, suggesting it’s the willpower beliefs affecting happiness, not the other way around.
Although students who described themselves as having less self-control were more likely to believe that willpower is limited, the link between willpower beliefs and later happiness held even after using statistics to control for the influence of the students’ self-reported levels of self-control. The link between believing willpower is unlimited and greater well-being also held after controlling for the students’ levels of optimism and pessimism, and their “self-efficacy”, which is a measure of how confident they are generally in their own capabilities.
Looking at diaries that some of the students kept during the study, it seems that at least part of the benefit of believing that willpower is limitless came from the fact that students holding this belief were better able to step up their efforts to work towards their personal goals as exam time drew near, and they felt they made more progress towards their goals. In contrast, the students who believed willpower was finite started to struggle to meet their personal goals as university life became more demanding.
These results need to be replicated and other explanations ruled out. For instance, it’s possible some other psychological factor or factors, not measured here, were affecting both willpower beliefs and happiness. However, if the results do hold, they suggest that the significance of the beliefs we hold about willpower could be far-reaching, affecting how we respond to challenging times, and therefore influencing our happiness in general. And if so, this raises the tantalising possibility of whether people can deliberately and permanently (not just over the short term) alter their beliefs about willpower in favourable, beneficial ways.
Bernecker, K., Herrmann, M., Brandstätter, V., & Job, V. (2015). Implicit theories about willpower predict subjective well-being Journal of Personality DOI: 10.1111/jopy.12225
Our free fortnightly email will keep you up-to-date with all the psychology research we digest: Sign up!