People with More Self-control are Less Stressed Out
Good self-control has been called the essence of “the good life.” This may surprise you. You probably know that self-control is important, but is it really that important? If we trust the scientific literature on the topic then, yes, self-control is really that important. Research across many scientific disciplines shows that people with good self-control tend to have stronger social relationships, perform better in school, report higher subjective well-being, and have lower financial debt, among other positive outcomes. Now, I’m going to add yet another benefit of having good self-control—being less stressed.
Self-control refers to people’s ability to change or inhibit their thoughts, emotions, and behavioral impulses. This definition illuminates why my collaborators, Jan Bauer and Wilhelm Hofmann, and I expected people with good self-control to be less stressed-out. People who have greater self-control may be able to regulate their stressful thoughts more effectively, making those thoughts less intrusive and overpowering. On top of that, people with good self-control are better at putting themselves into situations that support their goals and emotional well-being. So, good self-controllers steer clear of potentially stressful situations better than people with lower self-control.
Although the connection between self-control and stress may seem obvious, few studies have examined this link, and most of those studies studied only undergraduate students in the United States. Therefore, we set out to investigate the relationship between self-control and stress by studying over 4,000 participants from different socioeconomic backgrounds in Germany, Poland, Sweden, and the United States.
As expected, people with good self-control reported considerably lower stress levels than people with poorer self-control. And, this was true in each of the four countries. However, we did observe interesting differences across countries in the strength of the link between self-control and stress. For example, people’s self-control ability was more strongly related to lower stress in the U.S. and less related to stress in Poland.
Why was self-control more strongly related to stress levels in the United States? The honest answer is that we don’t know for sure, but one reason might be that Poland has a stronger social safety net than the U.S., which may help shield people in Poland against stressful adversities in life that are caused by having poor self-control.
Intrigued by these results, we set out to unpack one of the many remaining questions about self-control’s link to stress. One question that especially interested us was whether people with better self-control also experience less variability in their stress across time. Remember that self-control involves the ability to regulate thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Because this ability comes in handy when trying to avoid or battle with stressful thoughts, people who are high in self-control may not only experience less stress overall, but their level of stress may vary less over time.
To test this idea, we conducted a two-week study in the United Kingdom. Every day for two weeks, 594 research participants reported their level of stress on that day, which allowed us to analyze how their stress levels fluctuated over the two weeks and whether self-control had anything to do with the variability in their experience of stress.
It turns out that people with good self-control experienced more stable stress levels, on average, than people with lower self-control. Obviously, having a stable level of stress is not necessarily a good thing if your stress is stable at a high level. So, we again tested whether people with good self-control also reported lower stress overall, and they did.
Until now, I have talked about ways in which self-control may lead to important life outcomes such as less stress and lower stress variability. But not only does self-control affect stress, but stress can also influence self-control. In fact, prolonged stress during childhood can undermine the development of brain areas that are critical for the exertion of self-control, such as the prefrontal cortex. Even brief experiences of stress can make self-control much harder—just think about the last time you were really stressed and how hard it was to perform cognitively demanding tasks.
All in all, this research suggests that there are potential beneficial effects of improving your self-control.
For Further Reading
Duckworth, A. L., Milkman, K. L., & Laibson, D. (2018). Beyond willpower: Strategies for reducing failures of self-control. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 19, 102-129.
Mullainathan, S., & Shafir, E. (2013). Scarcity: Why having too little means so much. Macmillan.
Sapolsky, R. M. (1994). Why zebras don't get ulcers: A guide to stress, stress-related diseases, and coping. New York: Freeman.
Webb, T. L., Lindquist, K. A., Jones, K., Avishai, A., & Sheeran, P. (2018). Situation selection is a particularly effective emotion regulation strategy for people who need help regulating their emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 32, 231-248.
Kristian Steensen Nielsen is a behavioral scientist working as a research associate at University of Cambridge. His research focuses on behavior change in the context of climate change mitigation and biodiversity conservation.