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How Self-Control Can Help You Live a Healthier Life

Eight benefits of self-control capacity.

Self-control is the capacity to override one’s impulse or desire in order to attain another goal (Mischel, 2014). The alternative to exercising self-control is indulging in an action that momentarily satisfies a short-term goal at the expense of long-term rewards. Self-control is a vital strength and key determinant of success in everyday life. The following briefly illustrate the link between good self-control and a broad range of desirable outcomes:

Source: By NOAA Photo Library, NOAA Central Library; Family of Captain William M. Scaife C&GS. (NOAA Photo Library: theb0734) [CC BY 2.0 or Public domain]/Wikimedia Commons
Source: By NOAA Photo Library, NOAA Central Library; Family of Captain William M. Scaife C&GS. (NOAA Photo Library: theb0734) [CC BY 2.0 or Public domain]/Wikimedia Commons

1. The ability to achieve long-term goals

To achieve any long-term goals, individuals need to resist the tempting immediate, yet low-priority, rewards with which the more important goals are in conflict (Duckworth, 2016). The point is to reduce the power of momentary feelings. For example, a person might feel fear, but he would not act on it. A person might desire sweets, but would be able to repress the urge. If you talk more than at a meeting than you listen, you may be putting your desire to outshine above learning and companionship.

2. Anxiety

When people are experiencing negative emotions, they may distract themselves by shifting their attention to something else. Attentional control is an important form of self-control that enables people to avoid distractions and thereby to focus on what is most relevant and important. For example, a study showed that students with high self-control capacity were better able to deal with test anxiety (Bertrams et al., 2016). They were able to keep anxious worries from impairing their ability to perform well on tests.

3. Addiction

Individual differences in impulsivity (inadequate self-control) are consistently identified as key factors in the initiation and later problematic use of substances (Bickel et al., 2012). Addicts are insensitive to future consequences, and instead they are guided by immediate prospects. For example, heavy drinkers are more impulsive than light drinkers, and consequently, use more alcohol. Impulsivity has also shown to have an effect on drug treatment outcomes. Among alcohol and drug-dependent clients in treatment, those with good self-control were more likely to finish treatment (Chiou et al., 2013).

4. Obesity

The ability to exercise self-control is linked to obesity. Reduced self-control is related specifically to choices of comfort foods (i.e., the dessert and fried food). One possible explanation for this relationship is that individuals who are obese and severely depressed have reduced self-control for choosing comfort foods to feel better. Consumption of the comfort foods is linked to the rising rates in obesity (Privitera et al., 2015).

5. Physical health

Self-control capacity contributes to a better physical health (Adler, 2015). For example, Seligman (2011) reports that self-control is a major health asset: men with the highest self-control have a 56 percent reduced risk for CVD. Self-control better enables people to resist engaging in health-damaging behaviors, including the use of tobacco, alcohol, and other harmful substances (Miller et al. 2015).

6. Relationship

The capacity to self-control benefits close relationships by enabling people to maintain interpersonal harmony, especially in unpleasant circumstances (Baumeister & Stillman, 2007). In a sense, the capacity for self-control is a capacity for empathic perspective taking (the ability to step outside one’s own point of view). Appreciating each other’s perspective in a conflict is a sign of not of weakness but of strength. By doing so, they are able to override automatic defensive reactions in favor of more reflective and constructive behaviors.

7. Resilience

The term "resilient" refers to the capacity to bounce back after adversity (Southwick and Charney, 2012). Self-control is an important predictive of resilience. Resilient people have good control over impulses and have the ability to delay gratification in regard to the potential consequences of their actions. A resilient person has a belief in her own abilities to manage life’s challenges and situations effectively. For example, training for emergencies or for military services is all about developing a sense of psychological control that becomes second nature to a soldier or emergency medical technician.

8. Good life

Self-control is a personal quality that contributes to human happiness. Research shows that people are happier, more productive, and more creative when they feel they are the origin of their behavior. The Greek philosophers viewed self-control (willpower) as a major virtue, and viewed yielding to temptation as a deplorable weakness (Seligman, 2011). Achieving a worthwhile objective to which one has devoted oneself makes people better off. As John Milton remarked, “He who reigns within himself and rules his passions, desires, and fears, is more than a king.”

In sum

Self-control is a psychological resource (protective factor) that can improve health and well-being. The beneficial effects of self-control suggest that interventions targeted at strengthening self-control may improve the overall well-being of the general population.


Adler NE (2015). Disadvantage, self-control, and health. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 18;112(33):10078-9.

Baumeister, Roy and Tyler Stillman (2007). "Self-Regulation and Close Relationships" In Joanna Wood, Abraham Tesser, and John Holmes (Eds.), The Self and Social Relationships, Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press.

Bertrams, A., et al (2016). Higher Self-Control Capacity Predicts Lower Anxiety-Impaired Cognition during Math Examinations. Frontier in Psychology 7: 485.

Bickel W. K., Jarmolowicz D. P., Mueller E. T., Koffarnus M. N., Gatchalian K. M. (2012). Excessive discounting of delayed reinforcers as a trans-disease process contributing to addiction and other disease-related vulnerabilities: emerging evidence. Pharmacol. Ther. 134, 287–297.

Chiou WB, Wu WH, Chang MH (2013). Think abstractly, smoke less: a brief construal‐level intervention can promote self‐control, leading to reducedcigarette consumption among current smokers. Addiction 108(5):985-992.

Duckworth A. (2016) Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. Scribner

Hofmann, W., Fisher, R. R., Luhmann, M., 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, 265-277.

Miller GE, Yu T, Chen E, Brody GH (2015) Self-control forecasts better psychosocial outcomes but faster epigenetic aging in low-SES youth. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 112:10325–10330.

Mischel W. The Marshmallow Test: Mastering self-control. New York, NY: Little, Brown, and Company; 2014.

Privitera GJ, McGrath HK, Windus BA, Doraiswamy PM. (2015) Eat Now or Later: Self-Control as an Overlapping Cognitive Mechanism of Depression and Obesity PLoS One. 26;10(3)

Seligman, Martin E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.

Southwick SM, Charney, DS (2012), Resilience: the science of mastering life’s greatest challenges. Cambridge university press.

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