Muriel Cooper
Psychologist in Mornington

Happiness and success


Reaching happiness and success

Articles about achieving happiness, success and sustaining relationships.

Exercising willpowerWill power seems like an old-fashioned notion to many people now - a Victorian 'stiff upper lip' thing. But having the ability to hold ourselves back from behaviours, a habit or a thought, is a tremendous skill and there are ways to improve it – build up your 'mental muscle'.

Recently I heard an interview with Professor Roy Baumeister – author of the book 'Willpower', concerning the science of self-control.

Regular readers of my newsletter will know the emphasis I place on mindfulness in my therapy; not just being in the present moment, but also to use the 'observational self' (as I call it) to make decisions about what we choose to do or think about in our lives – so in this context it could also be thought of as will power or self-control.

So what does science have to tell us about self-control?

Studies show that it takes energy to exercise will power or self-control, so you need to manage your energy including eating properly and getting a good night's sleep.

It also shows that our willpower/self-control wears off as the day progresses – also it becomes harder to make decisions. For example a study in Israel of sentences from judges regarding granting parole to those who are convicted, showed there was less chance of parole as the day he went on.

Why do some people just seem to have more willpower/self-control than others?

Girl weighing a choiceMaking decisions – should I trust my 'gut feelings'?

I'll declare my bias up front and say (on a personal note) that I am a firm believer in intuition or 'gut feelings'). I rarely hear from people that it has not worked for them and that is also my own experience.

Scientifically though, intuition hasn't had a good run in the past. One report says "Intuitive processes and outcomes have been considered as inefficient mental short-cuts."

In more recent years though, science has been having a good look at intuition and its role in decision-making as well as in our mental processes in general, and to quote another report, "Intuition is now a legitimate subject of scientific inquiry". So far so good, science says it's OK.

What is intuition?

Jung defined intuition as "perception via the unconscious", seeming to indicate that intuition is not a conscious, thinking process. It could also come from just underneath the surface – what Freud called the 'Subconscious' (as opposed to the deeper levels of the unconscious).

In psychology it's commonly thought that intuition is 'condensed reasoning' or 'swift cognition' – that is the thought is so fast we don't even notice we're having it and so it seems to come out of nowhere.

Gerd Gigerenzer, author of 'Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious' argues compellingly that "what we feel in our gut is informed by our brain".

Many researchers have found that the gut has its own nervous system called the 'enteric' nervous system and it is not a big stretch to move towards the 'gut' and the 'central, or brain nervous systems being connected.

All this is very interesting, but ...

Making a decisionMaking a snap decision is often easy. The ball is coming at us – we decide in a split second whether to catch it and how. We hardly even have to think about it; it's a reflex action. Sometimes we might drop the ball or fail to catch it but the decision to try is made without us having to even think about it.

A little stress (or emotion in general) can help us to take the leap of decision making – in fact you literally can't make a decision without the limbic system (or the emotional brain) being involved. People who've had this connection severed find that they can't make a decision about anything, including what to have for breakfast.

However too much stress can flood the brain with stress chemicals and make trying to decide (or think straight at all) a fuzzy experience. If you're overly stressed delay making that life-changing decision until you are in a better space, otherwise you might get pressured (by yourself or others) into making a decision you'll later regret.

Another problem is that we have so many choices in our decision making today and so many options. A couple of hundred years ago the ordinary citizen only had a choice of about two sets of clothes – one for every day and one for Sundays. Now you can stand in front of the wardrobe for ages without being able to decide what to wear (and that goes for men too). Even in big decision making, we often have too many choices now.

But what about those big, hard-to-make decisions, the kind we agonize over, procrastinate over and dither about? That's much harder. Will we buy or move house? Will we change jobs? Will we ask that man or woman to marry us? - Decisions, decisions.

Daily mental hygeineOne of the hardest things for me as a psychologist is not giving people strategies and coping mechanisms to deal with SAD (Stress Anxiety Depression), that's relatively easy. The problem is how to get people to do it on a regular basis. As I often say – you don't wait until get holes in your teeth and then brush them (although it's never too late).

But remember the old saying – prevention is better than cure and daily practice can do wonders.

Daily Mental Hygiene not only helps us be happier and make us more resilient against SAD but it helps our overall health as well, reducing our blood pressure and heart rate and helps us sleep better.

So why don't we do it?

We get into the habit of brushing our teeth because mum or dad nagged us every day as kids to do it. It's deeply ingrained now. Also the dentist bill for a filling is enough to make anyone want to brush their teeth.

Also we do it in the morning when we have a shower or groom ourselves in the bathroom, so we learn to associate brushing our teeth with another habit or thing - that becomes what I call a reinforcement reminder.

Also we don't want to make it too onerous or we'll be put off doing it.