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.


Spiritual humility and the mysterious wisdom of Alcoholics Anonymous

A friend of mine from grad school once told me she was a deep admirer of the Baha’i Faith, but there was one aspect of the Faith’s teachings that she took exception to and couldn’t quite get over. Why was it, she asked, that the prayers and other holy writings seemed to attribute everything to God? She herself was a believer in God, she told me, and she understood the concept of God being the originator of all creation and thus the ultimate cause of everything. It wasn’t that that bugged her. Rather, it was the way that Baha’i scripture seemed to see the human being as helpless without God’s assistance. Couldn’t we just give a bit of credit to the power of humanity itself?

For me, a person who grew up in a Baha’i family and who was exposed to Baha’i prayers from an early age, this was an eye opener, because it had never occurred to me that these prayers sounded like this to others. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt I understood where she was coming from.

To give you an idea of what I mean, just take a look at these two passages from the Baha’i “Long Obligatory Prayer”, which is a prayer that many Baha’i recite daily*:

“Thou seest, O my Lord, this stranger hastening to his most exalted home beneath the canopy of Thy majesty and within the precincts of Thy mercy; and this transgressor seeking the ocean of Thy forgiveness; and this lowly one the court of Thy glory; and this poor creature the orient of Thy wealth. Thine is the authority to command whatsoever Thou willest. I bear witness that Thou art to be praised in Thy doings, and to be obeyed in Thy behests, and to remain unconstrained in Thy bidding.”

“I love in this state, O my Lord, to beg of Thee all that is with Thee, that I may demonstrate my poverty, and magnify Thy bounty and Thy riches, and may declare my powerlessness, and manifest Thy power and Thy might.”

Why does this prayer insist on portraying the individual as someone who is powerless and feeble before God? Why does it ask the believer to keep reminding himself of his meagerness?

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