Friday, November 1, 2013

What Your Resistance to Halloween Candy Predicts About Your Life

Tempting Halloween candy
Thanks to yesterday’s festivities, both kids and adults have a few more sweet treats on hand than normal. With a big bowl of candy sitting at home on the kitchen table or stashed in a desk drawer, many of us now face the annual challenge of eating our Halloween candy in moderation. Some of us will succeed; others won’t. We face situations like this constantly in life, where we are tasked with resisting temptations and overriding our impulses.  What might our responses to these situations reveal about the rest of our lives? Are we happy? Are we satisfied? To approach this question, let’s imagine a couple of eight-year olds and their new stashes of Halloween candy. 

Jack and Jill are both very proud of their plastic pumpkins filled with Reese’s and Snickers and are excited to enjoy the benefits of their trick-or-treating. Jack digs in right away and has trouble getting his candy to last for more than a few days.  Jill, on the other hand, carefully picks one piece per day, preventing herself from eating too much at once. Their parents are not surprised – these actions reflect what their kids usually do when faced with temptations.  When you consider these kids, what is your image of them?  Maybe Jack, along with being impulsive, seems like he’s the kind of kid with a smile on his face, enjoying opportunities in life and simply having fun. Perhaps Jill, being diligent with her candy consumption, seems dull and sad, living a life full of restraint and discipline.

In recent research, psychologists examined possibilities like these. They were interested in how the tendency to exhibit self-control might influence life satisfaction overall. To test this, the researchers measured an individual difference called trait self-control. Individuals who are high in trait self-control, like Jill, consistently show the ability to change or control their responses to meet a standard – for example, they might be able to resist the urge to eat more than one piece of candy a day. People who are low in trait self-control, like Jack, are less frequently able to change or control their responses.

In multiple studies, the researchers found that having greater self-control was predictive of feeling more positive emotion. What’s interesting is that this positive emotion was what you might think of as “in the moment” happiness. It does not refer to how good people feel about life in general, but instead how they feel in the very moment they are asked. One might guess that people high in trait self-control experience less momentary happiness because they are constantly resisting temptation, but this was not the case. Instead, they experienced greater momentary happiness, which then contributed to greater satisfaction with life overall. 

Self-control conflict
Why might people high in trait self-control experience more happiness? One reason is because they tend to experience fewer conflicts to begin with, likely because they are doing a better job avoiding them. For example, maybe those high in trait self-control do not even buy any Halloween candy. Additionally, when a conflict occurs, people high in trait self-control are better at regulating their behaviors and coming closer to behaving as they ideally want to. This tendency to avoid and manage conflicts well is then positively related to feeling greater positive affect.

Importantly, this research does not mean that every single person with low self-control is going to be sad or dissatisfied with life. It also does not mean that trait self-control is fixed and that nothing can be done to improve self-control abilities. Jack is in no way doomed to a life of unhappiness and discontent. If anything, what I hope readers take from this research is that self-control, most usually associated with laborious restraint and a lack of pleasure, may instead be associated with joy and happiness in life. 

Enjoying candy one piece at a time!
Over the next few days, if you find yourself tackling the challenge that a big pile of Halloween candy presents, I encourage you to observe your own feelings when you resist or give in to the temptation. Perhaps you will find that managing this conflict and being able to restrain yourself from eating all your candy at once actually feels better than indulging in it all right away.

How do you deal with the challenge of not eating too much candy at once? What do you think about the evidence that trait self-control and happiness are linked? Let us know in the comments!

Hofmann W, Luhmann M, Fisher RR, Vohs KD, & Baumeister RF (2013). Yes, But Are They Happy? Effects of Trait Self-Control on Affective Well-Being and Life Satisfaction. Journal of personality PMID: 23750741

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