Happiness and self-regulation

Happiness and self-regulation

from The Happiness Institute's free weekly eNewsletter

In Peterson & Seligman's classic "Character Strengths and Virtues" self-regulation is defined as…

…regulating what one feels and does; being disciplined; controlling one's appetites and emotions.

They go on to provide more detail later in the book…

…self-regulation refers to how a person exerts control over his or her own responses so as to pursue goals and live up to standards. These responses include thoughts, emotions, impulses, performances, and other behaviours. The terms self-control and self-discipline are also used sometimes to convey the same meaning…overriding or altering one's responses is especially important in self-regulation and most acts of self-regulation involve stopping the self from having a response, such as when a dieter refrains from eating a tempting but fattening food. There are, however, some instances of self-regulation that entail initiating a response, such as whena sleepy man drags himself out of bed on a cold morning. 

So why is this important? 

The Stanford marshmallow experiment was a study on deferred gratification. The experiment was conducted in 1972 by psychologist Walter Mischel of Stanford University. The experiment has been repeated many times since, and the original study at Stanford has been "regarded as one of the most successful behavioural experiments". In the study, a marshmallow was offered to each child. If the child could resist eating the marshmallow, he was promised two instead of one. The scientists analyzed how long each child resisted the temptation of eating the marshmallow, and whether or not doing so had an effect on their future success. The results provided researchers with great insight on the psychology of self control…

…and the results (in brief)?

While a few children would eat the marshmallow immediately, of the over 600 who took part in the experiment, one third could defer gratification long enough to get the second marshmallow. The experiment confirmed the hypothesis that age does determine the development of deferred gratification.

But the really interesting findings!

It was the results of the follow-up study, that would take place many years later, which surprised Mischel. Since Mischel's daughters knew and grew up with many of the original test subjects, through casual conversation, Mischel discovered there existed an unexpected correlation between the results of the marshmallow test, and the success of the children many years later. The first follow-up study, in 1988, showed that "preschool children who delayed gratification longer in the self-imposed delay paradigm, were described more than 10 years later by their parents as adolescents who were significantly more competent ". A second follow-up study, in 1990, showed that the ability to delay gratification also correlated with higher SAT scores.

Review and replication studies have subsequently confirmed that the ability to self-regulate effectively is correlated with success and happiness in most spheres! 

And the good news for those of you wanting more happiness? 

Now many of you might be asking/thinking…can I improve my self-regulation? And in short, the answer is YES!

Peterson and Seligman, along with Peterson (in his other classic, A Primer in Positive Psychology) provide the following tips and suggestions…

  • start an exercise program and stick with it every day for a week

  • refrain from gossiping or saying mean things about others for at least a week

  • when you feel you're losing your temper, take a breathe and count to 10

  • practice "implementation intentions" such as "the next time I'm at a restaurant I will order a healthy salad"