by Isabelle Valley
American scientist Roy Baumeister is one of the world’s most leading and cited psychologists. Recently, the scientific community anxiously awaited the release of his latest literary work. This book was to encompass the most important insight on over 40 years of social psychology research. What Baumeister delivered was a revelation on what he declares the “greatest of all human strengths”—willpower.
According to Baumeister, willpower is the best predictor of how successful someone is in all facets of life. This especially applies to financial status and physical health as well as the ability to establish meaningful and sustainable relationships.
His research was further verified by several cohort studies, the most recent conducted by a Duke University science team lead by Terrie Moffitt, PhD, involving 1,000 individuals. The subjects were tracked from birth to age 32. What they found was that individuals who displayed high self-control in childhood grew into adults with greater physical and mental health, fewer substance-abuse problems and criminal convictions, and better savings behavior and financial security. This was the case regardless of the children’s socioeconomic status, home lives and general intelligence.
So how does one acquire willpower? Is it all just based on luck at birth or is it a trait that can be cultivated? According to Stanford professor, psychologist and author, Kelly McGonigal, in her award winning book, The Willpower Instinct, “You most definitely can materialize willpower as it is limited and therefore must be constantly reestablished through use and habit formation.”
The key to willpower lies in the brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex located towards the front of the head. In contrast, the deeper more primitive parts of your brain, otherwise known as the limbic and reptilian areas, override our willpower. The primitive areas are emotionally reactive whereas the prefrontal cortex is logical. The prefrontal cortex is what restrains you from temptation and prioritizes your goals and values. The limbic and reptilian areas are what cause you to stress eat and say things you later regret. They are commonly described as the “flight or fight” driven areas. As noted by many, the logic and emotionally reactive parts of the brain can at times be in a state of conflict.
The development of the prefrontal cortex will create a willpower performance that is ample and dominant over the impulsive areas. So how do you empower your prefrontal cortex over the primitive areas? According to McGonigal there are five main habits that will not only develop a rich supply of willpower but will actually change the physical constitution of your brain:
Eating a specific diet
Meditation is like going to the gym and training for a willpower challenge. It essentially strengthens your attention muscle. The act of meditation is the ability to maintain a controlled mindset that dominates impulsive thinking. The act of mental self-control is, in essence, willpower. McGonigal states that after 11 hours of cumulative meditation, there is an observational and measured increase in neural connections in the brain’s area for self-control.
Eating a Specific Diet
According to McGonigal, the key to willpower is “sugar.” The brain constantly monitors available energy using special glucose detecting cells. When glucose drops, the brain will cut back on “energy-expensive” tasks such as self-control. This is why a state of hunger can lead to poor food choices. The number one recommended and most scientifically proven diet for willpower, according to McGonigal, is a whole, plant-based vegan diet, rich with fiber and natural occurring glucose such as that found in fruits and vegetables.
In conjunction with diet, sleep deprivation impairs the body’s and brain’s ability to utilize glucose. McGonigal states that sleep deprivation causes the brain to crave sweets and caffeine. In turn this leads to an overreaction to stress and higher states of uncontrollable “flight or fight.” The ability to take in just a few extra hours of sleep a day demonstrated exponential self-control in drug and nicotine recovery studies. Sleep is an essential willpower booster.
According to psychologists Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng, just 15 minutes of exercise will significantly reduce your cravings for food and cigarettes. Their studies indicate that an average of exercise three times per week reduced stress, enhanced self-control and increased the ability to ignore distractions. In fact, exercise does the same kind of thing that many medicines do. Harvard psychiatrist and author John Ratey states that “exercise is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin,” noting that exercise increases the amount of neurotransmitters in our brains as seen when Zoloft is taken.
McGonigal warns that “stress is the enemy of willpower.” Stress drains willpower by causing us to succumb to a constant state of “flight or fight” and produces the willpower destroying hormone “cortisol.” Ironically, the optimal ways to manage stress are also the most effective ways to build willpower. Sleeping, eating the right foods, exercising and meditation are not only powerful stress management techniques but cultivate willpower itself.
Baumeister states that willpower is the most important trait for a happy and successful life. If this is the case, we would be wise in practicing all the key habits to assure we have an ample supply. Though creating these habits may require us to use our willpower, Baumeister points out that once habits are formed, they go on auto pilot, therefore little willpower is needed to sustain them. With that said, habits of sleep, exercise, meditation and proper nutrition come with a compounded effect. These habits may take a little willpower investment initially, but eventually this willpower will compound, leading to an ample supply of the #1 trait for success.
Isabelle Valley, certified raw detoxification specialist, has more than a decade of experience helping individuals elevate their health through the power of raw foods and motivational coaching. For more information, visit at TheRawOasis.com.