Season 2,
45 Min

Episode 63: Does Willpower work?

July 24, 2017

An old favourite of the Victorian era, Willpower has made a big comeback in recent years as the key to a successful life. But what is Willpower exactly? Is it a force like a muscle that we can strengthen with practice? Does it exist at all? And why does it seem to work in some instances and not others?

This week Clay and Sarah tackle the question of Willpower and whether or not it works as a way to direct our life choices.

In this episode we discuss:

* What is Willpower? Is it a monolithic force of a single name for various decision-making processes?

* The history of Willpower from Victorian times to its revival in the 1960s with the famous psychological ‘marshmallow test’

* Does Willpower work? Can we use it to make a change (stop a bad habit or start a good one)? Or do we need to rely on something else?

* Nietzsche’s metaphysical concept of ‘Will to Power’ as the force that drives everything

* How meditation and mindfulness are essential for harnessing Willpower (if it does indeed exist!)


Willpower, a force psychologist Roy Baumeister claims we rely on to control and manage our thoughts, impulses an emotions, and which helps us perservere with difficult tasks. It was the Victorians who first used the concept of Willpower as a means of self-control and way to avoid moral corruption.

It was revived in the 1960s after psychologist Walter Mischel’s famous ‘marshmallow test’ which asked children whether they would like to have one marshmallow now or two marshmallows in five minutes.  Following up with these subjects many years later, Mischel discovered that those children who had been able to resist the immediate gratification in order to gain a greater reward in the long-term also had been more successful in their lives in terms of their careers, family and overall happiness.

Thus Willpower, seen as a skill of resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals, became the new ‘key’ to leading a successful life.

Many still discuss Willpower as if it works like a muscle and can be strengthened with practice and can tire with use. And a wealth of self-help literature has sprung up giving us tips on how to strengthen our Willpower.

However, in his article ‘Against Willpower’, psychologist Carl Erik Fisher argues that this monolithic term actually covers a range of more subtle dimensions of self-control.  Emotional regulation for instance is a very different cognitive process that those that make decisions on our short-term and long-term goals.

Instead, Fisher explains, we humans are much more complex creatures with many different priorities and goals that are often in conflict with one another.  Decision-making under these conditions looks more like ‘interpersonal bargaining‘, where we argue within ourselves over our different priorities.

Although we certainly can admit that there are many factors that influence us, ultimately we like (and probably need) to believe we do have free Will.  We think of Will as a real force, and one we can wield, even if we often fall victim to our own habits and the influence of others. I found it interesting that in an article entitled Ten Exercises to Increase Willpower, meditation was #1. Perhaps that’s the difference between our ability to use our Will to accomplish our goals (or rid ourselves us bad habits), and our tendency to allow other external forces to distract us from what we truly want… our simple ability to stay present in our lives.

What do you think? Got any habits you’re trying establish or break? Does Willpower work for you? Don’t forget to join in the conversation and let us know what you think… we’d love to hear from you!


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