A couple of neuroscientists published an article in the New York Times today on the biology and effect of willpower. The article, “Tighten Your Belt, Strengthen Your Mind”, by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang, gives scientific verification to a principle your grandmother has been trying to teach you for years: self-control is good for you. This piece dovetails interestingly with another feature by Slate writer Laura Moser, “Footloose and Sugar-Free”, in which the authors discusses her discovery that eating little sugar helped her complexion, waistline, and life.
A good quotation from the NYT piece:
“No one knows why willpower can grow with practice but it must reflect some biological change in the brain. Perhaps neurons in the frontal cortex, which is responsible for planning behavior, or in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with cognitive control, use blood sugar more efficiently after repeated challenges. Or maybe one of the chemical messengers that neurons use to communicate with one another is produced in larger quantities after it has been used up repeatedly, thereby improving the brain’s willpower capacity.
Whatever the explanation, consistently doing any activity that requires self-control seems to increase willpower — and the ability to resist impulses and delay gratification is highly associated with success in life.”
These articles, published on major news outlets, show us that self-control is a powerful and verifiable force. They also demonstrate that our permissive society is willing to question itself, to wonder whether it truly is best to abide by the popular creed, “If it makes you happy, do it.” This maxim, celebrated in countless films, novels, and tv shows of the current era, doesn’t actually hold up all that well in the real world. It plays nicely in movies, of course, where no one gets zits, gets fat, or gets dumped (for long). It plays equally well in the hands of skilled novelists, who know that one of the best ways to sell a novel is to create a paradise world that taps into their audience’s desire to find lasting satisfaction in their pursuits and desires. But as I’ve said–it doesn’t play well in the real world. This isn’t to say that self-gratification and the pursuit of pleasure is not fun. It is, at least for a time. It’s fun to eat what you want and travel wherever you want to go and to have killer experiences that you tell stories about to your friends. Who doesn’t enjoy that sort of thing? The problem is, these things, which now constitute life for a good many folks, used to group themselves under the common heading vacation. It’s as if we all want to be on vacation all the time, incongruous a mindset as this may be with actual life.
Real life, after all, does consist in having the essentials of life and, beyond this, in having a good quality of life. It may be fun to pursue lots of wild trips to wherever, but at some point you have to come home, and if you’re not making any money, then home probably equates to an uncomfortable futon backed up against your roommate’s noxious hamper. It may be fun to eat and drink whatever you want, backing yourself up by some vaguely epicurean pronouncement, but you end up inconveniently overweight and, in the long term, in much greater risk of disease and early death. This issue has at its peak spiritual implications. Paul tells us in Titus that the grace of God appeared for nothing less than to cause us to be self-controlled. In a culture that exalts freedom and a relatively unrestrained life, this is an important point to underscore. We’re not being prudish or octogenarian in prizing self-control; we’re not being silly, or legalistic, or killjoys. No, we’re being wise, and godly, and happily biblical.
I sat and sit in seminary classes where the mysteries of the gospel and Christian thought are unfolded, and I frequently observe and observed numerous students at any given moment playing games, checking websites, IMing friends. I can’t heap condemnation on these students, but I can say that I think that their behavior (and mine, occasionally) does not demonstrate a high level of self-control, discipline, and focus on the incredible privilege of Christian education. No wonder most of us can recollect theological discussions and solutions with only the vaguest of terms. While our teacher was laying out the complex theology of Freedom of the Will, we were checking the latest Celtics score. While we should have been learning how to answer objections to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, we were sending a pointless email to our buddy (one we could so easily have sent an hour later). In these and many other instances, our lack of self-control and discipline not only robs us of temporary learning, but of long-term formation and, of course, character.
In writing all this, then, I’m not trying to portray myself as perfect in this regard. I’m not. I could have done better in this area, looking back. But I can also say that for much of my education, I did concentrate in class. It’s one thing, after all, to briefly tune out in a class. Most of us will do that, and if that involves checking email, that may not be best, but it’s not horrendous, either. But when we’re constantly checking sites and writing emails, we have to wonder about our character and the seriousness with which we take the task of education–and if we’re training for the ministry, the task of formation for the deadly serious business of gospel ministry.
Self-control is clearly not a moment-by-moment matter. You can’t be undisciplined one moment and disciplined the next. In making choices of diet, lifestyle, and even classroom focus, we’re not shuffling the unimportant–we’re building a life, a ministry, a character.