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A Brief History of Willpower

Sarah Robinson An Affair with Chocolate CC BY 2.0I find myself invoking the old D.A.R.E. mantra, “Just say no!” when face-to-face with a bag of Peanut M&Ms or a gooey brownie or say, an entire jar of Nutella. I have a serious weakness for chocolate, and “just say[ing] no” ain’t that easy. I was at my wit’s end a few weeks ago, bemoaning my lack of self-control, when I happened upon The New York Times bestseller Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney. I can’t say I bought it entirely devoid of the hope that it would help me unlock my potential for resisting temptation, but it’s also just an interesting read that unpacks a rather elusive concept. Here’s a summary of what I learned in the introduction:

According to psychologists, two qualities determine success and well-being in life: intelligence and self-control. The latter is a malleable quality — like a muscle, it “can…be strengthened over the long term through exercise,” according to Baumeister. When Baumeister and his colleagues conducted a study of over 200 Germans wearing beepers that randomly sounded, requiring the participants to report on the status of their desires, they concluded that “people spend at least a fifth of their waking hours resisting desires,” that “desire [is] the norm, not the exception.” (The desire to eat topped the list, a temptation the participants claimed to be only mediocre at resisting, as compared to the desire to sleep, have sex, or spend money, which made me feel a little better about the moments when I’ve been caught licking spoonfuls of Nutella out of the jar…) Point being, exercising willpower is tough. The authors suggest that it’s gotten tougher throughout history, citing a rigid social hierarchy, a reduced set of temptations, and the enforcing powers of the Catholic church and the threat of public disgrace as reasons why the notion of willpower didn’t exist during the Middle Ages.

The term came about during the Victorian Age, when the decline of religion and the societal changes associated with the Industrial Revolution, such as urbanization, led people to fret about the upholding of moral standards. “They began using the term willpower,” according to Baumeister and Tierney, “because of the folk notion that some kind of force was involved — some inner equivalent to the steam powering the Industrial Revolution.” The popularity of the willpower concept declined in the twentieth century, not least because the mindset of duty and self-sacrifice led to mass deaths during World War I, as well as the Nazi party’s exploitation of such values as obedience and self-denial, even titling propaganda films “The Triumph of the Will.”

Following World War II, the advertising industry in the newly booming economy encouraged Americans to strive for popularity and prosperity, with books like How to Win Friends and Influence People and The Power of Positive Thinking replacing Self-Help and The Power of the Will. Self-help authors espoused the “feel-good philosophy” of achieving success through self-confidence, the “believe it, achieve it” mentality. It seems that with this greater emphasis on positivity, the country’s collective willpower declined somewhat. For example, in The Quest for Identity, psychoanalyst Allen Wheelis wrote that as a result of declining self-discipline, his clients had an easier time getting in touch with their neurotic tendencies (less “character armor” to break down) but they encountered more difficulty in making changes to their lives. Another reason for “the decline of the will” has to do with the prevailing belief among psychologists and social scientists that the conscious mind is ever subservient to the subconscious, that free will is essentially a fallacy. Even author Roy Baumeister was more focused on fostering self-esteem than self-control when he started his career in the 1970s, riding the wave of personal empowerment philosophy, with books like I’m OK — You’re OK and Awaken the Giant Within. 

The resurgence of self-control as an influential force in human life didn’t come from new theories or hypothesizes, but rather materialized as scientists were testing for other phenomenon. A man named Walter Mischel led a study in the 1960s testing how children resisted immediate gratification, in which children were given a marshmallow that they could eat at any time. If they waited to eat it until the experimenter returned, they would also be allowed to eat a second marshmallow. Most of the children who held out succeeded in delaying gratification by distracting themselves, an interesting finding in itself. Years later, Mischel tracked down the children from the experiment, discovering that the four-year-olds who resisted eating the first marshmallow possessed a host of positive traits connected to willpower as adults, from higher SAT scores to higher salaries to a lower body-mass index.

In Losing Control, Baumeister and his wife, Dianna Tice took stock of the benefits of self-control, and prompted a new wave of experiments on the topic. Self-control was found to be the best predictor of a student’s grade-point average, over IQ and SAT scores. It was also associated with higher levels of empathy, lower rates of mental illness, healthier relationships at home and at work, and better finances, among other things. Meanwhile, anthropologists and neuroscientists studied the evolutionary causes of willpower, concluding that humans developed larger brains along with the capability of self-control because of our social nature. The authors write, “Primates are social beings who have to control themselves in order to get along with the rest of the group… For animals to survive in such a group without getting beaten up, they must restrain their urge to eat immediately.”

The introduction ends by defining the elusive concept of “the will” as making conscious choices with a broader awareness of time, “treating the current situation as part of a general pattern.” I think that’s what I’m after re the spoonfuls of Nutella — “just saying no” enough so that giving in is the exception, not the rule, even if desire is a constant. In “Why Will Yourself to Read This?” the authors do promise some practical wisdom on that front, bolstered by social scientists’ understanding of what willpower is, how it works, and how it informs our understanding of the self. For anyone out there seeking greater productivity, better health, or just a sense of self-mastery, this book is worth a read. I’ll continue to post with more insights gleaned, but for now, more power to you.

Victorian Novels + Hearing The Grass Grow

Screen Shot 2013-04-03 at 1.24.41 PMI have always liked nineteenth century Victorian novels. I find them only too true. They have a keen way of getting at the heart of things, you know. (I just finished Henry James’s The Golden Bowl. Please pardon me if I can’t quite shake his roundabout, flared-nostril rhythms.)

When asked to describe my favorite books — George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady – it can be awkward to enthusiastically endorse white male authors who wrote about aristocrats. (Okay, George Eliot was a white female writing under a pseudonym.) However, like a hipster with her Indie musician, I take reverse pride in my appreciation for these thoroughly vetted classics.

What is so revelatory? George Eliot puts it this way, in her masterwork Middlemarch:

“If we had a keen vision and feeling for all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”

It’s the nuanced narration of ordinary life that turned me on to Henry James when I read Portrait of a Lady, often cited as his best book and inconveniently for me, his first book I read, sending me down an ever-loyal slope of slightly more underwhelming reads from Daisy Miller to Wings of a Dove until I hit bottom with his last and most excessive book, The Golden Bowl.

Zadie Smith has an essay called “Middlemarch And Everybody,” which I discovered in Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. She talks about James, Eliot, and a variety of other topics. I had always felt the similar strain of psychological complexity running through Eliot and James, but I was glad to find a kindred, more articulate spirit in Ms. Smith. As a successful writer of contemporary fiction and not inconsequentially, a person of color, she states with added authority and eloquence what the Victorian novel offers to our modernized sensibilities:

“Why do we like them so much? Because they seem so humane. We are moved that…[Eliot] is so alive to the mass of existence lying unnarrated on the other side of silence.”

She summarizes George Eliot’s unique style as poetic, in the language of one of Eliot’s characters:

“To be a poet is to have a soul…in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge…”

This discerning, feeling voice sounds a lot like Henry James’s “sympathetic narrator,” the stylistic gift that led me to suffer through all 1496 pages of The Golden Bowl. I have emerged less blinded by the light, and can provide a bottom-line analysis for anyone who is entertaining a first-time foray into James:

Portrait of a Lady

Isabel Archer is a young, single, recently orphaned American facing a precarious financial situation and possessing a strong will to live independently. We meet her on an estate in London, the home of her British aunt, Lydia Touchett, who has invited her to experience Europe. James paints a vivid profile of Isabel’s charms — her combination of naiveté, sincerity, pride, curiosity, and innate intelligence — capturing the reader’s sympathies and the affections of Isabel’s uncle, Daniel, several rejected suitors, and her sickly cousin, Ralph. When Daniel dies, Isabel inherits a vast portion of his estate.

Ironically, Isabel becomes less and less in control of her destiny after inheriting her uncle’s estate. Due to her own misjudgments, her seemingly charmed fate slowly deteriorates. After turning down several suitors, she accepts the proposal of a snobby American expat who objectifies her and cheats on her.

Isabel’s disappointments feel tragic because James so carefully establishes her competence, then carefully, sympathetically describes how she faces the task of living with her mistakes. Maybe it’s such a beloved classic because it’s an eloquent meditation on the simple fact that life isn’t fair. “Once she saw through a glass, darkly, now she is the less deceived… Of how many Victorian novels could that sentence serve as shorthand” — this is Zadie Smith’s succinct analysis.

As for The Golden Bowl? Yawn. It’s all this stuff about seeing through the glass darkly, being deceived, plus oppressive, repetitive symbolism (a golden bowl that shatters at the peak of the deception, really?) told through choppy, cloying syntax, separated by oh, so many commas. But I can’t say it was pure misery. It transports you to a different universe, and true to form, the seemingly naive protagonist turns out to be the most interesting and calculating character of them all. Feel free to read the plot summary below, or if you’re a glutton for punishment, the whole thing. I’ve finally had too much of a good thing and I’m ditching Henry James in favor of Mary Karr’s memoir, Lit, with sentences like “my first therapist’s name was — I shit you not — Tom Sawyer.”

The Golden Bowl

Screen Shot 2013-12-11 at 6.49.45 PMMaggie Verver is the daughter of a rich American art collector. She and her father have an unusually intimate relationship, having served as each other’s primary companion for many years, traveling the world on behalf of his collection. The book opens as Maggie prepares to marry an Italian prince. He takes a patronizing view of his future wife, openly wedding her for financial gain. Meanwhile, Maggie has trouble cutting emotional ties with her father.

To assuage Maggie’s guilt and to escape the older women now vying for his attention, Mr. Verver eventually marries Charlotte, Maggie’s childhood friend, a poised, cosmopolitan young woman, less privileged than Maggie. However, Charlotte and the Italian Prince have a lingering romantic connection that is first established when Charlotte and the Prince go shopping for Maggie’s wedding present and come close to purchasing a golden bowl.

Charlotte gradually enters into an affair with the Prince, Maggie becomes increasingly suspicious, and her suspicions are confirmed when she visits the London antiques shop with the golden bowl. The shopkeeper shows her the bowl and she suddenly realizes the truth.

The golden bowl then becomes a metaphor for the pristine, perfect deception that all four parties have partaken in, living in close, claustrophobic proximity on a lavish London estate. Maggie observes it in restrained silence with increasing comprehension. When she eventually confronts the Prince, her restraint seems to alter his perception of both Maggie and Charlotte, to Maggie’s advantage.

In the end, Charlotte and Mr. Verver move back to America. Maggie triumphs, given a fresh start with the Prince and their son. Wah wah.

[Photos: “Henry James,” mr lynch’s photostream, under CC by NC SA 2.0, “Golden Bowls,” mararie’s photostream, CC by SA 2.0]

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