It’s a Meaningful Life: The Surprising Existential Benefits of Self-control
Self-control is often praised as one of the most important and beneficial human qualities. People with strong self-control are good at resisting temptations and overriding their momentary desires for the sake of long-term goals. They consistently emerge as winners in many self-control dilemmas, having less difficulty sticking to their diets and exercising, planning ahead, and completing work assignments on time than most of us do.
One of the frequently mentioned benefits of high self-control is that people with greater self-control are more successful at achieving their goals, whatever they may be. In addition, people with higher self-control are healthier, live longer, tend to be more satisfied with their relationships, and have more successful careers. Not surprisingly, high self-control people are happier and more satisfied with their lives than people with lower self-control.
Our research shows that the long list of the benefits of high self-control does not end there. In three studies, we demonstrated that people with high self-control are also more likely to see their lives as meaningful.
In our first study, 460 adults in the United States completed a measure of self-control by indicating their agreement with such items as “People would say that I have iron self-discipline” and “I’m good at resisting temptations.” Then, every day for the next seven days, they completed an online questionnaire on which they indicated to what extent they “felt that their life was meaningful” on that particular day.
Our results showed that people who reported having stronger self-control were more likely to perceive their daily lives as meaningful. But why would self-control contribute to daily meaning? There are at least two possible reasons.
One is that goals facilitate people’s understanding of the purpose of life because our behavior becomes meaningful when it is goal-directed. In addition, self-control promotes people’s ability to organize and structure their life, potentially creating a sense of understanding and order that seems to be crucial for perceiving life as meaningful. In follow-up studies, we examined whether self-control is related to a stronger sense of meaning because it contributes to goal achievement or because it fosters feelings of order.
In one study, 350 U.S. adults completed a measure of self-control, indicated how much progress they had been making towards their goals lately, rated the degree to which their life had order and structure, and indicated whether they perceived their life as meaningful. Although participants with higher self-control were more likely to successfully attain goals and see their life as having order, only having a sense of order was related to people’s feelings that their life has meaning.
In the final study, we replicated this finding and also showed that the effect of self-control on meaning was stronger for people who enjoy having a clear and structured mode of life and appreciate having consistent routines.
Many people regard high self-control as a necessary evil because, although it clearly contributes to personal success, it also involves self-denial, restraint, and forgoing the joys of life. Our research challenges this assumption—suggesting that self-control facilitates success in many areas of life without necessarily depriving us of pleasure, enjoyment, and meaning. In fact, self-control may allow us to enjoy life—and develop a deeper sense of meaning—without making life feel like a chore.
For Further Reading
Stavrova, O., Pronk, T., & Kokkoris, M. D. (2018). Finding meaning in self-control: The effect of self-control on the perception of meaning in life. Self and Identity, 1-18.
Hofmann, W., Luhmann, M., Fisher, R. R., Vohs, K. D., & Baumeister, R. F. (2014). Yes, But Are They Happy? Effects of Trait Self-Control on Affective Well-Being and Life Satisfaction. Journal of Personality, 82(4), 265-277.
Olga Stavrova is assistant professor of psychology at Tilburg University, the Netherlands; Michail Kokkoris is assistant professor of marketing at WU Vienna University of Economics and Business.