Opinion: Daily Journal

The Yield from Not Yielding

RALEIGH – If your desire is to be constantly happy, you will doom yourself to misery.

That is to say, if your conception of a happy, successful life is to do whatever you feel like doing, whenever you feel like doing it, you are setting yourself up for a big disappointment. Actions have consequences. What feels good today can feel horrible tomorrow. If you eat, drink, and sleep to your heart’s content, you will make yourself sick, corpulent, and listless. If you don’t work hard, you won’t have the means to play hard. If you spend all your money today, instead of saving and investing it for tomorrow, you will be the Grasshopper begging the Ant for something to eat. And if you make poor decisions as a kid – to drop out of school, to dabble in drugs, to produce children out of wedlock – you will be more likely to be poor as an adult.

I know, these aren’t exactly novel insights. You will find them embedded in virtually every code of ethics (the theory of right behavior) or morality (the practice of right behavior) on the planet. They reflect basic truths about the human experience.

In the new book Willpower, New York Times writer John Tierney and co-author Roy Baumeister discuss fascinating research in the field of human behavior. The fascination comes not in the discovery of any truly new ideas but in the empirical demonstration of these ancient ones. It turns out that the capacity to delay gratification is highly correlated with material success and true happiness.

Tiernan provided this example in a recent Reason interview:

The marshmallow test was where 4-year-olds would be given a marshmallow. It would be set in front of them, and they would be told that they could eat it but if they waited 15 minutes they would get two marshmallows. This was really just a study in deferred gratification, but quite by accident the researchers who did it happened to notice later that the kids who had managed to resist the marshmallow did much better in school, did much better in life.

While many social-science researchers focused entirely on intelligence as a predictor for success – and then spent decades chasing down and debating its causes – the predictive value of self-control got short shrift. No more. It is becoming increasingly apparent that while brains, brawn, or beauty can be valuable, they won’t make you happy if you lack the motivation, determination, and self-gratification to work hard, create value, and build meaningful, lasting relationships.

This body of research has at least two important implications for public policy.

First, self-control is like a muscle. If you don’t exercise it regularly, it will atrophy. Be it in education, business regulation, or social policy, when government tries to shield people from the consequences of their actions, or eliminate their freedom to decide in the first place, it contributes to a broad deterioration of virtue, responsibility, and the work ethic. That’s not to say that the muscle can’t also be injured by overuse. The research findings in Willpower suggest that successful people find ways to reduce the number of little decisions they have to make every day – by using automation and routines, for example – so that they can devote more mental energy to big decisions that require deep thought and delayed gratification.

The second implication is that impulse control is particularly difficult in government. Politicians often live entirely in the short run. They think about the next election, or perhaps even the next day’s news cycle, instead of how their decisions might affect constituents they haven’t met years or decades hence.

This is not an accusation about certain politicians in the headlines at the moment. It’s a timeless observation about human nature. We are all prone to temptations of various kinds. Put us in positions of power, surrounded by sycophants and opportunists, and we will often stumble. That’s one reason why political power ought to be limited, both in time and in scope. “What is government itself,” asked James Madison in Federalist No. 51, “but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.