The Greatest Human Strength


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The calendar read 14 miles for Sunday’s long run and the radar promised clear, sunny skies with 32 degrees at take-off. What it did not say was that several of the 10 inches of snow that lay on the ground for the past few days were still there.

The weather report promised no wind. The wind was brutal. My favorite socks were dirty. I forgot the bandana I usually bring along to wipe my incessantly runny nose. Estimated finish time was 1pm which meant my body would expect lunch halfway through the run. I had gotten a late start.

After 7 miles on the track, I headed for the bathroom in the park before finishing the run on the sidewalks – in whatever condition they may be. The bathrooms were closed due to inclement weather. The nearest gas station shared the bathrooms with the attached bar, which wasn’t open yet. The bathroom in the diner across the street arrived in the nick of time.

For another hour, I ran, walked through and jumped over mounds of snow; I tiptoed through mud puddles. After underestimating the depth of one particularly muddy puddle, both feet were completely immersed. There were 4 miles to go – half of them straight up.

Now it’s past the meet time with my husband. I call when I reach the Jeep – he seems upset. I fume all the way to the restaurant, “How can he be mad!? I’ve had a miserable run!”

He had ordered our food and it was already on the table. I didn’t speak. Tears threatened. He was trying to make me smile when he told me if I didn’t get my attitude in order he was going to force me to eat an olive. I told him I was going to shove that olive up his nose. We laughed.

I don’t know what makes some runs difficult but from time to time they happen. By the end of that run I was drained, mentally and physically. I had used all my willpower to finish.

There’s an interesting thing about willpower – it can be depleted. Whether you’re resisting a favorite food or finishing a dreadful run, exercising self-control saps the same mental energy source.

will·pow·er noun \ˈwil-ˌpau̇(-ə)r\: the ability to control yourself : strong determination that allows you to do something difficult (such as to lose weight or quit smoking)

Researchers have concluded that people spend about a quarter of their waking hours resisting desires — at least four hours per day. Put another way, if you tapped four people at any random moment of the day, one of them would be using willpower to resist a desire. And that doesn’t even include all the instances in which willpower is exercised, because people use it for other things, too, such as making decisions.

imageIn a study led by a Stanford University psychologist, scientists gauged whether test subjects believed they could exhaust their willpower, and sought to convince them otherwise. The researchers found that people “performed better or worse [on tests] depending on their belief in the durability of willpower.” You have as much willpower as you think you have, essentially. Which means that on some level, your journey toward self-improvement will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Then a remarkable finding came to light. In experiments beginning in the late 1960s, the psychologist Walter Mischel tormented preschoolers with the agonizing choice of one marshmallow now or two marshmallows 15 minutes from now. When he followed up decades later, he found that the 4-year-olds who waited for two marshmallows turned into adults who were better adjusted, were less likely to abuse drugs, had higher self-esteem, had better relationships, were better at handling stress, obtained higher degrees and earned more money.

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The power to resist temptation — to pass up dessert, to endure an unpleasant experience, to defer satisfaction — is our “greatest human strength,” argue psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and science writer John Tierney in their book, Willpower.

In the short-term, self-control is a limited resource. But over the long-term, it can act more like a muscle. Tierney cites one study in which students were asked to watch their posture for a week. At the end of the week, those students performed better on self-control tasks — tasks that had nothing to do with sitting up straight — than students who had not been exercising control all week.

The next time you experience something quite difficult, just imagine that your willpower is in training and is getting stronger with every passing day.

There is no telling what you will accomplish.

Additional Reading:
Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. Copyright 2011 Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. http://www.npr.org/books/titles/140516995/willpower-rediscovering-the-greatest-human-strength?tab=excerpt#excerpt
http://www.forbes.com/sites/dandiamond/2013/01/01/just-8-of-people-achieve-their-new-years-resolutions-heres-how-they-did-it/2/
http://www.npr.org/2011/09/18/140516974/resistance-training-for-your-willpower-muscles
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8 thoughts on “The Greatest Human Strength

  1. I agree with Edd – it’s all about desire. You can’t fool yourself into wanting something you don’t really desire. In the end people do what they want – whether eat that snack or veg out or shop. Work on desires and the effort falls into place. Will power only works for a short while…like guilt.

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    1. It is an interesting debate and may be all the same conclusion. Soldiers in boot camp may not necessarily have the desire to be there and yet through training they develop the strength/stamina over time to endure more than most. Marathoners are told the long runs not only develop physical endurance but mental as well. Perhaps it is through strengthening the will that it becomes possible to develop the desire.

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      1. But why would anyone START tng for a marathon unless there was a desire of some kind? For example…I have no desire. Yet I LOVE my hour hike/walk each morning and won’t miss it for most anything

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      2. Haven’t you ever started something with the best intentions/desire and not had the willpower to finish? It’s easy to say maybe the desire wasn’t great enough, but I believe the desire is great enough sometimes and yet we find we still can’t achieve. That’s when it must be comforting to know you can keep strengthening your willpower over time and eventually conquer your desires and goals – to experience personal growth. Not everyone finishes the marathon the first time.

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  2. I’ve thought a lot about the concept of willpower and have come to see it from perhaps a different perspective. Willpower is often regarded as a “grit your teeth and get through it no matter what” sort of attitude. But when we ask a most basic question–“What do I want?,” and KNOW the answer in the deepest fiber of our being, such efforting becomes unnecessary. At this level “struggles” and “obstacles” that present themselves are simply the next thing that we encounter without judgment and move beyond on the path to our fulfillment.

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    1. I really can’t argue with that. Even losing weight, something familiar to so many, can be achieved relatively effortlessly if the end result is something you want badly enough. Without that resolve, however, I could see where strengthening willpower in little doses every day will develop a stronger person who some day will know what they want and have the confidence to achieve it. At that point, isn’t your last sentence the perfect definition of a well-adapted, strong soul.

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      1. “Resolve” implies gritty determination and doesn’t really capture the essence of the difference between a human doing and a human being.

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      2. Maybe the research agrees with you when they define willpower as the ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals. Recent research suggests willpower consists of circuitry in the brain that runs on glucose, has a limited capacity and operates by rules that scientists can reverse-engineer.

        In my example from Sunday’s run, I know I want to run the next marathon I have selected. I know the training I am doing now will help me reach the reward of finishing the race in my desired time and I am comfortable with the long runs required. Even still, that run on Sunday was hard. There were many opportunities to say screw this and quit…and, at times I have thrown in the towel on a run. I believe the fact that I have practiced sticking with those difficult runs in the past helped me summon the willpower to finish in spite of its difficulty. Do we really disagree? I don’t know.

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