More on self-control, happiness, and marshmallows

These marshmallows would look more appetizing if I weren't too cheap to buy better stock photos

These marshmallows would look more appetizing if I weren’t too cheap to buy better stock photos

In my last couple of posts (see here and here), I made the case that religion and spirituality can help us control our impulses and make sounder decisions, and by doing so, we can improve not only our spiritual but also our material wellbeing.

There’s a branch of research that studies this type of thing (though not the religion part), specifically people’s ability to control themselves and the implications of this trait on their lives. In one famous example, researchers tested kids’ ability to delay eating a marshmallow in exchange for a payoff of more marshmallows later, and correlated their ability to do so with intelligence and achievement.

Today I came across an Atlantic article online about a recent study linking self-control to feelings of satisfaction regarding one’s life.

Here’s how the study worked (summary from the Atlantic):

To start, 414 adults completed an online survey, in which they rated their self-control by indicating how much they agreed with 14 statements (such as, “I do certain things that are bad for me, if they are fun”). The participants also reported their current emotional state as well as their overall life satisfaction. Holfmann’s team then turned to data from a study in which 205 adults were given smartphones and prompted to report their emotions at random moments throughout the week. At the same time, they were also asked to report whether they were experiencing any desires, and if so, how hard they tried to resist them, and whether they ultimately ended up acting on them.

The study indeed concluded that “[Trait self control] is positively related to affective well-being and life satisfaction”.

Now, I can see a few potential problems here. Just to take one example, is it possible that self control and happiness are correlated because the second causes the first, rather than the other way around? Maybe a third factor is the real cause behind both self control and happiness? And can we really trust people’s reporting of their own emotions to indicate how satisfied they are with their lives?

But these are problems that you encounter with a wide range of social science research. There are very rarely any smoking guns, just evidence that seems to point at a particular truth. To me at least, it doesn’t seem like a such a controversial idea that if you can get a hold of your life and not let your impulses dictate your decisions (at least, not too often), in the long-run you’ll be better off. And if submitting to a Higher Power somehow seems to help us control ourselves, and controlling ourselves seems to increase happiness, then shouldn’t it stand to reason that spirituality and religion can help us to be happy?

It’s not rocket science (well, it’s social science I guess). Anyway, I think this is a missing part of the debate over the usefulness of religion in modern society.


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