Is self-control good or bad or does it even matter? (mulling over @oliverburkeman’s latest)

I read a column over the weekend, where I saw this quote:

But a study out this year suggests another factor: people with higher levels of self-control enjoy commuting more, Harvard researchers found, because they use it for “prospection”, or mentally planning the day ahead, while those with lower self-control try to focus on fun, by listening to music or playing Candy Crush.

Source: How to love your daily commute | Oliver Burkeman | Life and style | The Guardian

This stuck with me because self-control is not something I ever see mentioned in public discourse in the UK. So I don’t know how people think about it.

But because of my weird past, with the nun thing and the cult thing, where at one point self-control was all that mattered, I had reason to notice it. When self-control is the measure of all things, you can’t be seen to be weak. That’s not how ‘regular’ society works though – we don’t think like that. Of course it’s important to have some control, if you want to stay in shape and achieve things and all that. But how much does it matter to other people? I’ve never gotten a definitive answer on that.

Does to be seen to have self-control get you respect, and reversely, not having it, lose you anything? Does it matter to anyone?

I have no idea.

Because of this paragraph, I didn’t send this article to any of my friends. Because to me, ‘low levels of self-control’ to me implies an insult and really I like it when people do what they want on their commute. I personally look around and think about what might be behind people’s facades.

That probably gets me brownie points with the mindfulness brigade, if nothing else. Yay me.

Is it a thing where it matters where you’re from and how you’ve been raised? Do you value it more in others if you are more driven yourself?

Are we collectively still in a stage of rebelling against the stricter times of previous generations and therefore more willing to slow down and indulge? Is it all going to snap back, is that why kids don’t go to raves but go jogging instead?

Is it simply because there isn’t so much wealth around that it now appears in columns? Is this maybe not a fluke? Do we feel that self-control is more important now than a generation ago, because you won’t get anything if you don’t try super hard?

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One response to “Is self-control good or bad or does it even matter? (mulling over @oliverburkeman’s latest)

  1. Hm. HMMM.

    First off, I’m not sure he’s right about that commuting thing. I love commuting, but I mostly use it to knit. Or read. Or, hell, snooze. I love it because it’s stolen time. And yes, planning the day or otherwise introspecting can be part of it – a great part – but it has nothing to do with self-control for me. So.

    There is definitely a huge stigma to visibly lacking self-control (and to anything that implies that; hence fat shaming). I’ve also read advice that weight control is very important to business success and “looking like a leader”. (That was totally unresearched advice, btw, but an interesting insight into common assumptions.) l’m more interested in the research on how willpower is a limited resource – so expending it in one area (eg diet) reduces willpower available for other things (eg concentrated thought). And the role of glucose in supporting willpower. And all that stuff.

    It’s fascinating, especially given the moral judgment involved. And superficial conversation on “self-control” also tends to ignore the role of motivation. For some things, sometimes, I have “willpower you could crack rocks on” (friend’s description). Other times? Eh. Not so much. If I don’t know exactly what I’m getting out of it, or if I just frankly don’t have the energy to care at this point in my life, well, no. I can’t stick to good intentions at all. I imagine this is pretty universal, and yet people talk very freely about “people with low self-control” as if this is a deeply embedded, intrinsic characteristic, rather than one both variable and heavily dependent on current life circumstances and how long it’s been since your last snack.

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