Willpower in an Impulsive World
I have a favorite quote, well two actually, both on the same theme by the same author. These are my words to live by:
People don’t lack strength, they lack will.
Frame your life so that, at some future hour, fact and dreaming meet.
We live in a world that rewards impulse. The internet was designed so that we can move our thoughts freely from one task to another with a simple click and an instant response. It’s all about instant gratification. Media are constantly reminding us to pamper and treat ourselves. There are a lot of people making a lot of money off society’s growing impulsiveness. We’re being sold impulse as a form of self-care. Self-care is important, and taking time for yourself and your needs is essential to living a healthy life. However, the narrative that was so important to 80-90’s psychology has been co-opted and deformed by advertisements that appropriate the psychological language of self-care in order to sell you hamburgers and soda. Don’t deprive yourself. Buy this, you deserve it! You’re overworked and under-appreciated. Treat yourself!
I believe you: you are an awesome person and you work hard. That’s why I also believe that you deserve a happy and healthy life, but happiness is not something that can be bought and consumed.
Fulfillment does not come from treating yourself.
You’ll see a news article make the rounds every year or so about the astonishingly high levels of mental illness among Americans, about 1 in 5. What makes America different? Why are so many people here suffering? Americans are overworked. We have long work weeks that extend into our time at home. We take few vacations. We sell our time for money, and that money buys less each year. And, what is time but the stuff our very lives are made of? We literally sell our lives and our happiness to our work, and it’s making us miserable. Everywhere you turn, there are people selling you remedies to unburden your overworked life. What you don’t see are remedies in work practices that are making people so miserable.
Unfortunately, there’s too much money to be made off miserable Americans. Miserable Americans are consumers.
We’re unhealthy, so we’ve made short-term remedies for the symptoms.
We are literally treating ourselves. Which brings us back to impulse. Have a need? There’s somebody selling an instant and imperfect fix. Are you tired? You can buy caffeine, sleeping pills, energy bars and drinks, and diet regimes to help with the symptoms of being tired. The cure? Well the cure lies in working less and getting more sleep, but nobody’s selling that.
So, your life makes you feel like crap, but you can buy some things to make yourself feel temporarily better. These things are sold to you as ways to treat yourself. This constantly advertised idea that you merely need to make smart purchases to increase your happiness has led to generations of Americans losing their will to impulse. Here are just a few examples of slogans that encourage impulsivity by selling you short-term remedies to your problems:
- “Because you’re worth it.” -Loreal
- “Just do it.” -Nike
- “Have it your way.” – Burger King
- “Have a break, have a Kit Kat.” –Kit Kat Bar
- “Obey your thirst.” – Sprite
- “Gotta have my pops!” – Corn Pops
- “Betcha can’t eat just one” – Lay’s potato chips
- “Hungry? Grab a Snickers” – Snickers
- “Open Happiness” – Coca Cola
- “You deserve a break today.” Mc Donald’s
Advertising that weakens impulse control comes in many forms beyond slogans. Stores are laid out in ways that encourage impulsive buying, and television shows perpetuate the notion that luxuries are deserved as a remedy for being overworked, underpaid, and miserable.
The thing is, and I hate to tell you this: you don’t deserve to treat yourself. Harsh, I know, but you know what? You do deserve to treat yourself well.
You may not be able to change your job or all the other stuff the world throws at you, but you can change how you react. Set your life up to be more than just impulsive and reactionary. It’s time for you to train your will to be as great as your inner strength.
I’m not going to claim to be some Buddha of enlightenment, this is a process for me too, one that will continue through my entire life, which brings me back to the words I live by.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
-Be willing to delay your gratification. Practice ignoring temptations that lead you away from long term goals. When we give in to impulse to serve as a temporary solution to a problem, we cheat our future selves of the lives we deserve. “Frame your life so that at some future hour, fact and dreaming meet.”
-Try to recognize when a feeling is an impulse, so that you can try to override the resulting impulsive behavior. It’s all about building small resistances day by day to help you rediscover the virtue of willpower and self-control. Remember that, “people don’t lack strength, they lack will.”