In a previous article (see Confessions of a Carnivore) I wrote about my personal experimentation with vegetarianism. Every year for one month, I abstain from eating meat of any kind (yes, that includes fish.) As I mentioned in the prior article, I do this because I think it is beneficial for my health, beneficial for the planet, and it helps me to test and strengthen my willpower or “self-regulation.”
Research (See Roy Baumeister’s work here, here, and here) shows that self-regulation acts as a muscle, and it can be strengthened. Exercising your will in one area, can bring you more discipline in other areas of your life. Denying yourself something (anything that you feel attached to) can serve to strengthen and hone your will, and improving your sense of discipline can have powerful positive consequences on just about everything you do.
In some religious practices, this form of asceticism or “self-denial” is thought to be spiritually purifying. Christians practice “lent” where they give something up for forty days (representative of the 40 days in the Bible that Jesus spent enduring the temptations of Satan.) Some historians report that lent historically meant giving up all animal products in one’s diet.
Today, many religious practices are more relaxed, allowing people to select one favorite food or activity that they would like to abstain from. Over the years I have experimented with not only giving up meat, but also trying a month without chocolate or a month without alcohol. These kinds of trials are not only physically healthy, but I believe they develop psychological skills that serve me well in my life.
Although I am not religious, the spiritual impact of these practices is not lost on me, since some scientists argue that developing self-regulation is the key to developing a strong sense of morality. (Baumeister suggests that not only is self regulation “like a muscle” in that it can be fatigued and strengthened, but it is also thought of as “the moral muscle” because it is the skill that allows us to deny our own self-interests to serve the greater good.)
We often think of willpower as the ability to delay gratification, or as psychologist Walter Mischel, puts it to “postpone immediate gratification and persist in goal-directed behavior for the sake of later outcomes.” In other words, to deny ourselves what we want now, for a preferable long term goal in the future.
But to be a good member of society, willpower is also required to deny our individual desires for the benefit of the planet or the community. Baumeister also refers to self-control as the “master virtue” because of its role in “overcoming selfish or antisocial impulses for the sake of what is best for the group.” Doing the right thing often requires willpower, so exercising your strength of will is indeed a soul-cleansing experience.
As you think about your New Year’s resolutions, you are probably considering some fitness goals, and hoping to exercise your muscles in new ways in the months ahead. Don’t forget your moral muscles . . . they could use the exercise too.