Gretchen Rubin

A new study explains why I can use self-control to meet one challenge, but I crumble when faced with a second challenge.

This morning, the New York Times ran a short piece, How Self-Control Lowers a Buyer’s Guard.

A paper in the Journal of Consumer Research showed that after doing an exercise that required self-restraint, people spent much more on impulse purchases.

In the study, college students were given an exercise: writing down their thoughts while not thinking of a white bear, or reading from a boring book while assuming a fake expression of interest. Next, they were given $10 to save or spend on an assortment of products.

The average sum spent by a test subject who’d just used self-control was $4.44. The average sum spent by a test subject who hadn’t just used self-control was $1.21.

Apparently, after people use self-restraint in a particular context, they have less self-restraint available to meet the next challenge.

Boy, this rings true to me.

Just recently, I sat with a plate of cookies in front of me for a two-hour meeting without taking a single one (distracted by that effort the entire time), only to grab a big handful of Hershey’s kisses from the bowl at the reception desk on the way out.

Yesterday, I battled myself to bite back the nagging words I wanted to hurl at the Big Man: “Can’t you hurry up?” “Aren’t you ready yet?” “We’re going to be late!” Then, one second after I congratulated myself on my self-restraint, I complained to him in a rude voice, “You never answered any of my scheduling emails.”

While exercising no longer takes a huge effort of will for me (this took years to achieve), I remember the days when I’d force myself to go to the gym, then buy a cookie on the way home.

This study provides an insight that’s truly useful in real life. If I know that my self-restraint is apt to be low after I’ve exercised it, I know to be extra-vigilant for a while, until my self-control store replenishes itself.

If you just can't hear enough about the Happiness Project, check out the "Five Minute Interview" on Mind Hacks, where they were kind enough to interview me.

Marginal Revolution is a blog by two economists who take an expansive view of what subjects they discuss. There, I was delighted to discover a W. H. Auden poem, “The More Loving One,” I’d somehow never read before. My favorite relevant-to-the-Happiness-Project lines are:

If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

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