The Myth of Willpower©
I had some interesting conversations this past month in response to my newsletter series on “Habits” (see Habits—Part I, and Habits—Part II). The point of contention was my statement that changing habits is “not a matter of willpower.” Every person who challenged this point was adamant that their difficulty in changing habits stemmed from the “fact” that they just didn’t have much “willpower.” I hate to belabor a point, but this one turns out to be really important, not because it is so new, but because it flies in the face of so much of our conditioning and, consequently, is so widespread among the members of the human species.
So, why do I make the claim that “willpower is a myth?” Well, the answer is fairly simple if not a little convoluted. For decades, psychologists have studied this phenomenon as a personality trait, most frequently measured by responses to a self-report questionnaire (excuse me, personality inventory) designed to measure that trait. But such measures tend to be poorly (if at all) related to actual behavior in experimental situations designed to elicit “willpower” (aka “self-control”). This most often takes the form of situations that present a temptation to the individual with the behavioral measure being the tendency to either resist or succumb to the temptation during a period of observation. The results seemed initially supportive, but the ability to delay gratification (self-control) at an early age is apparently not related to later success in life. In short, what people say and what they do are often quite different.
Over the past decade, however, research has begun to seriously question the results of such studies conducted in relatively artificial (typically laboratory) environments. What do real people do in real life environments? As it turns out, self-report measures aren’t exactly worthless, they just measure something other than what their designers thought they were supposed to measure.
How do researchers know this? People with high scores on measures of self-control actually report having fewer temptations in real life situations than those with low scores. In essence, people who are good at self-control are better at structuring their lives to avoid having to make a “willpower” decision at all. They are habitually better at planning (a learned skill) so as to not “put temptation in harm’s way,” thereby avoiding temptation in the first place. Interestingly, structuring one’s life in general is a learned skill and is the basis of Conscious Living as discussed in the Dancing with the Energy books soon to be released.
There are a few other factors as well. For example, genetics seems to play a small but consistent roll in a trait called “conscientiousness.” Students who score high on measures of this trait tend to be healthier and are more aware of monitoring their behavior and their time (planning). This is quite consistent with the notion of self-control, although as yet that trait has not been related to the same outcomes. Rather, both of these personality traits are consistent with the idea of taking personal responsibility for one’s life—again, a cornerstone of Conscious Living.
One important finding is that people who are better at self-control actually enjoy activities that many people resist, such as studying, exercising, or eating healthy foods. If you want to do something (like change a habit), you are far more likely to be successful than if you have to do it. Doing what you want isn’t work; it’s fun. Such activities are more likely to be repeated (especially consistently repeated) over time and become new habits. (see last month’s discussion of want power versus willpower).
How does this happen? A crucial factor in delaying gratification (self-control) is the ability to change your perception of the object or action you want to resist. In other words, if you look for the positive in an activity you don’t really care for, you are far more likely to find that activity at least useful and, at best, perhaps even fun. That requires conscious intention and planning. (Sounds a lot like Conscious Living doesn’t it?)
But how does this apply to changing a habit, even a “bad” habit such as an addiction? Maitreya has this to say on the subject:
• “Being spiritual does not mean one has to become a vegetarian or give up any of the habits one has. These will be let go of when the soul is ready to do so.” ~ Maitreya (Newsletter #183, May 9, 2006)
Paramhansa Yogananda says the same thing, but he focusses on wanting “God alone” as the key to changing habits. This is essentially identical to Maitreya’s notion of aligning your life energies with Higher Self as outlined in the Dancing with the Energy books. When that focus becomes paramount in your life, the desire for the old habit is replaced with an even stronger desire for a new, replacement habit (see Habits—Part II). And how do you do that?
• “You leave old habits behind by starting out with the thought, ’I release the need for this in my life. ’” ~ Dr. Wayne W Dyer (1940-2015; American psychotherapist, self-help advocate, author, & lecturer)
The need (desire) that Dyer speaks of is a perception, a thought that is often accompanied by an emotional response. Both metaphysics and quantum physics tell us that “Your thoughts create your reality,” and your beliefs are your thoughts on steroids—your beliefs are your truth! If you believe that your new habit is more useful, more enjoyable, and more uplifting than your old habit, you will be ready to “let the old habit go” because you want to.
This happens almost automatically when you consciously focus on aligning your life energies with your Higher Self and raising your vibration. Lower vibrational habits just are not needed when higher vibrational thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors become the foundation for developing new habits to replace the old. In short, decide what you really want—what best serves you—and then focus your attention and energies on those goals. This is the essence of “want power.” When you are truly ready to allow a new habit to manifest in your life, the rest will take care of itself.
Don’t get me wrong; the things I wrote about previously are excellent support tools to help you make the transition to truly wanting to change, but I believe that willpower is a myth. No, I actually believe it is more than that. Willpower is actually a cop-out. It is an excuse for not having to take responsibility for one’s own behavior, one’s own life. That’s okay; that habit also will eventually go when you are vibrationally ready to replace it with something like Conscious Living as a new and more functional habit. Then you will truly be Dancing with the Energy.
• “Learn to understand your habit patterns. Anything you do repeatedly creates a subtle groove in your unconscious mind, and then you don’t have control over it any longer. Only by consciously creating a new groove will your mind begin to flow toward that new groove and you will form new habit patterns. The day you become aware that you are the master of your actions will be a great day for you; before you are aware of this, you are merely a slave to your own mind.” ~ Swami Rama (1925-1996; Indian yogi; The Art of Joyful Living)
Have a great month!