Another way to look at willpower is to think of it as focusing on lasting happiness over short-term pleasure. It’s tempting to think of pleasure and happiness as the same thing, but happiness, which comes from living in a way that satisfies our real needs, is not the same thing as gratifying a momentary urge (for more on this, see “The difference between pleasure and happiness“).
So for instance, willpower to clean up a junk room at home means caring more about how we’ll feel once that room is reclaimed–or even how we’ll feel once we’ve gotten over the initial hump and are making exciting progress–than about the potential discomfort or annoyance of getting started. Willpower to stop smoking means caring more about having good health than about quelling a momentary urge or giving in to a craving to smoke. Willpower to work harder on schoolwork or at a job means caring more about the satisfaction of getting the most out of our daily efforts than about the great number of whims and distractions we’re presented with from moment to moment that sometimes seem more appealing than working.
Looking at willpower in this way doesn’t mean postponing the benefits for months or years: lasting happiness can start surprisingly soon. For instance, with the junk room example, within ten minutes we can start to experience pride and elation at finally making progress on a long-postponed job. The nagging concern about getting that work done also lifts, providing almost immediate relief.
It’s strange that things like a doughnut, which will be gone and maybe regretted in just five minutes, or avoiding a task, which skips the trouble of getting involved in the work but often ignores the fact that the work can be interesting and satisfying once we’re in the groove, can tempt us. After all, temptations and indulgences offer an obvious but very limited kind of enjoyment not at the time that we think of them, but a short time in the future, typically, while focusing on longer-term happiness often offers a less flamboyant but still meaningful kind enjoyment in only a slightly longer period of time. Why do we sometimes fall for satisfying the imbalanced needs of ourselves a few minutes in the future instead of taking care of the versions of ourselves that will exist only a few minutes after that? Why do we so often go for pleasure in five minutes when it’s going to lead to regret in ten?
Regardless, thinking about willpower in this way gives us a simple practice we can use to improve our self-motivation: when faced with a short-term choice that we know we’d like to make a certain way, whether it’s a temptation we want to avoid or a task we want to face, focusing our attention on lasting happiness and how we’ll feel about a good choice will make us more likely to choose the option we really want, while focusing on short-term pleasure will make us more likely to follow paths we won’t be glad we took.
Photo by h.koppdelaney