My fraternity brothers are sending their kids to college and mine are out. It is so enjoyable to watch them fret and whine about the debauched state of campus life. It started off with laments that when we were in college we called the cafeteria, “The Pit” as in horrible. No longer. Little Joey and Buffy can choose from a variety of food courts that are now open all day and night.
Someone opined that casual sex seems to abound at his kids campus. Gone were the days when you actually had to date. Another reminded us of a serious reprimand we got from the Dean for a gambling party that got a little too large but now gambling is legal in most every state. Another one noted that his son probably went to college in Colorado for the legalized pot.
I finally noted the obvious. “Hey, isn’t this the world that you longed for when you were in college?” “Sure, but I never would have graduated.” I love it and it is endlessly amusing.
It has always been available. But years ago, you had to go to Greenwich Village or the Chelsea Piers on the West Side to find it. Today, you just type in your question on Google. Chances are, all the wiles of urban eccentricity are just a click away.
We’ve raised our children in a world of near infinite choice and possibility. Part of that is wonderful. Limited choice we’ve done for many generations and it wasn’t so great. But in a world of nearly infinite choice, the virtue of self-control become infinitely more important.
In fact, there is some initial research that suggests that our era is experiencing an increase in anxiety and stress precisely because the range of choice and the immediacy of our ability to fulfill our desires creates for us an increased sense that we are always on, that we always have to make wise choices. Just this week, I happened to see an article that got picked up in an on-line magazine where a woman is bartending, notices a famous author that she’s read, tells him she is a great fan. He’s had too many drinks, makes a loutish pass at her. In ye olden days, it was just a bad night. But with a cell phone photo of him loaded and a review, someone is pretty likely to pick up the story and blast it around the globe so that your family gets to be embarrassed along with you from now on.
We are more ‘on’ than we need to be as I am always reminded standing in the building lobby looking up at all the cameras, sitting at a traffic light with a camera, going through the toll booth with a camera. With time and money, we can re-create your day in 15 minute segments now with amazing accuracy if we want to. We are astonishingly public.
And self-control is only going to become more important since we have teams of people whose full-time job is trying to figure out exactly the right measurements of say, salt and sugar, to create cravings in support of better marketing. We have teams of people figuring out complex alogrithms for no other purpose than to predict from a few things you buy, what your tastes are and to surround you with things that you would find appealing. We have committees that design our every mall and supermarket so that you have smells and presentation that make you weak kneed and purchase stuff that you never intended to actually buy when you went out for a gallon of milk and some strawberries. They are so much better than we are, and getting better every month that self-control is sure to become a much bigger virtue in a decade.
I was interested to read of one recent study on ‘delayed gratification’ that finally put on the screen what St. Paul was so articulate about in the passage we read from Romans. St. Paul speaks eloquently about being of ‘two minds’ when he is trying to change something in himself. He says, “I cannot seem to do what I know is good for me but instead to the very thing I would like to change”. Or in Corinthians he makes the remark, “I seem to be at war with myself”.
Just recently, we started watching this on screen as we can see the brain operate better in real time. In this study, people were trying to lose weight and so they were given a diet of fresh fruit and vegetables, and they were all encouraged to develop a plan to get to their goals. They were able to talk about their goals, about the principles for their actions, and the rational part of the brain lit up. You can see it on the screen.
During the course of the day, they introduced temptations that had immediate gratification like an ice cream bar or a mini-cinabon treat with the luscious wafting aroma of sugar, what researchers now call ‘super-saturated’ or ‘supernormal’ stimuli. And you can have it right now, just a little cheat to get you through.
It turns out that when this happens, a whole other part of the brain actually lights up. It is not the newer part of the brain that is rational but part of the limbic brain, the seat of our emotions. The rational part lights up too but it has competition from the emotional part of the brain.
I love the way our researchers describe this phenomenon. Said one at Harvard, “Our emotional brain has a hard time imagining the future, even though our logical brain clearly sees the future consequences of our current actions. Our emotional brain wants to max out the credit card, order dessert and smoke a cigarette. Our logical brain knows we should save for retirement, go for a jog and quit smoking. To better understand why we feel internally conflicted, it will help to know how our myopic and forward looking brain systems values rewards and how these systems talk to one another.”[i]
As St. Paul says, “I am at war with myself” we used to say from our spiritual tradition. Today, our researchers describe the same anecdote with reference to our evolutionary history. You can trace most of all civilization up to the past 100 to 150 years with one set of choices.
Contrast that with today where we have incredibly appealing stimuli- like those Caramel Machiato’s at Starbucks, computer games that are almost 3D, super sized breast implants, even gasoline that makes possible instant speed our ancestors literally couldn’t imagine. Our ability to manufacture stimuli has way, way outstripped our ability to evolve and make changes to self-regulate.
And yet, our early research suggests that self-regulation may actually be a critical foundational virtue that we have woefully underestimated. One study that caught my eye as a parent and the wife of a school teacher who works in a failing school district was the role that self-regulation plays in school achievement.
When Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman did a study of 8th graders from a racially and economically diverse group of students, they were somewhat surprised that IQ didn’t correlate very well with any known measure of academic success. Fortunately, the added a piece on self-discipline that asked teachers, parents, and the student’s themselves to assess their self-discipline by rating how hard it was for them to break bad habits or to make choices on what should come first in their priorities. It turns out that self-discipline correlated with actual success well enough that they repeated the experiment and added another piece on delayed gratification.
It won’t sound like rocket science to parents that strengthening our will around delayed gratification would help junior do better in school since school requires steady work, prioritizing homework over video games and chipping away at a longer term goal.
These studies are in their early stages, but this is what these noted psychologists concluded early on. “Underachievement among American youth is often blamed on inadequate teachers, boring text books and large classes. We suggest another reason for students falling short of their intellectual potential: their failure to exercise self-discipline… We believe that may of America’s children have trouble making choices that require them to sacrifice short-term pleasure for long-term gain, and that programs that build self-discipline may be the royal road to building academic achievement.” [ii]
Likewise, another study identified thirty-two personality variables and they tried to correlate them with academic success. As you probably already know, despite all of the time and energy we put into having our students do well on the SAT test, there is alarmingly scant correlation between how well you do on the SAT and how well you do in college. There is even less correlation between how well you do on the SAT and how well you do in your career. Of the personality variables, the only one that was a reliable predictor of success in college was that of self-control. In fact, the authors of that study suggested that colleges figure out a way to assess an applicants ability to self-regulate and that this should be used as a critical component for admissions.[iii]
The early returns on this line of research has led some experts in the field to wonder if perhaps we shouldn’t structure more research in the future in world-wide studies. It may well explain what others have been unable to explain, which is why certain countries in the Advanced world, like the United States, don’t compete that well with other countries. Likewise, other researchers have noted that Americans have been quick to respond to our supposed rise in cases of ADHD among our youth with medication. In fact, what we may need to be doing is strengthening our children in areas of self-discipline and delayed gratification.
Again, this insight will not come as rocket science to parents of adolescent boys as motivating them to focus and develop consistency seems to be the daily drill. Here is the hopeful part about our will. It works pretty much like a muscle, the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. More than that, we have pretty good evidence that when you develop good habits in one area of your life, they spill over into other areas of your life.
So our parents have not been wrong in encouraging our kids to participate in sports, for example. Two researchers in Australia did a study on a group of adults that were self-professed couch potatoes. They enrolled them in a fitness program that got them to the gym every day and the program very slowly built up their routines so that they were exercising more and more will power and getting into better and better shape. Just like you might expect, the more people got into shape, the less they smoked, the less they drank, the less junk food and coffee they consumed. Likewise, when they interviewed them, they started spending less time watching TV and more time in active pursuits. Finally, they reported being less depressed. Part of it is simply replacing negative stuff with positive stuff. But maybe that was just a result of exercise?
So they did a follow up experiment with money management. They got this group to set savings goals and these goals required them to actually make choices. In order to reach the savings goals, they had to choose not to go out to eat, not to take a vacation they wanted to go on, not to take in entertainment on the weekend that they might normally indulge.
Furthermore, they had to keep detailed logs about various aspects of their daily life that caused them unconsciously to become more reflective and intentional about what they were doing. In other words, they were engaging the rational part of the brain routinely where they might have only been engaging the emotional mind before. [iv]
Lo, behold, they discovered similar spill over in other areas of their lives. They drank less, smoked less, ate less junk food, and focused more productively at work. The point being that when we develop strength of will in one area of our life, it spills over into other areas of our life.
“When you force yourself to change… part of what is happening is you are changing how you think” says Todd Heatherton at Dartmouth. “People get better at regulating their impulses. They learn how to distract themselves from temptations. And once you’ve gotten that willpower groove, yur brain is practiced at helping you to focus on a goal.”[v]
As Christians have noted for a couple thousand years, this is fundamentally a spiritual exercise, to intentionally interrupt your habitual pattern of doing things, to re-focus ourselves, and to spend a season engaged in strengthening our will.
We follow after the practice of Jesus, who seemed to know that the mission that he was engaged in was difficult enough and dangerous enough that he had to have a pronounced clarification of his will. We are told that right at the beginning of his ministry, he withdrew to the desert for 40 days of fasting and prayer. By the way, it just turns out that this is about the minimum of time you need to actually break a bad habit and replace it with a new one.
But Jesus mission, let’s be clear, was a lot more profound than just losing weight or saving money. He actively asked God to fill his whole life, something we should all be praying. He knew, but he couldn’t really know, just how dangerous his calling would actually be. None of us wants to go through torture or the loneliness of being betrayed by your friends or the self-doubt that comes from the injustice supported by the mob that calls for you to die. None of us wants to lead like that. In fact, none of us really even want to contemplate our own death, let alone standing for something that is moral and spiritual enough that we might have to die for it. None of us wants to, but we know that we just might have to. And we would like to think that we have the character strength to persevere with integrity.
Jesus prayed a prayer at the very end of his life, just before he died that I find haunting. I wonder if it isn’t one of those prayers that he prayed every single morning and every single evening of his life because that is what his life was about. It is what he became. He said, “not my will but thine”. He said that just before he knew he would be unjustly arrested, unjustly tried and crucified until he died an agonizing death.
That kind of inhuman degradation requires superhuman strength. And we are told that he withdrew periodically from public view and went into a time of prayer to be away from the crowds and to re-center, re-focus, remember what was important, what his life-plan was, what his mission was. I wonder if he wasn’t every day, every week, getting spiritually stronger, developing will power to face bigger difficulty, arbitrariness, inhumanity and evil.
I hope in this season that you lay claim to the freedom with which God has so wonderfully made you. I hope that you will purposely turn towards your nobler spiritual calling. I hope you become filled with the Spirit that you would sense God’s purpose for your life. And piece by piece, little by little, may you build a bedrock of meaning. Transcendent peace be with you. Amen.
[i] The quote is from David Laibson, an economist that was working on the study. I got it from Daniel Akst’s book “We Have Met the Enemy” on p. 152. Mr. Akst’s book is a good introductory read on the subject. He does a nice job of giving you the results of our early research without boring you with the lingo or statistics.
[ii] Ibid from Akst chapter “The Marshmallow Test”, p. 106.
[iii] The authors of the study were Raymond Wolfe and Scott Johnson. Ibid. p. 107.
[iv] The researchers were Megan Oaten and Ken Chang. I got the insight from Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit, p. 138.
[v] Ibid. p. 139.