Developing Self-Control God’s Way

Want to lose weight? Quit drinking? Go to the dentist more regularly? Get in the habit of wearing your seat belt? Remember to take your vitamins?

The most reliable way to accomplish any of these things is to strengthen your relationship with the Almighty. Develop your faith. Read your Bible. Pray. Go to church.

The New York Times recently reported on an academic study by two psychologists who looked at research on self-control dating back to the 1920s.

Their conclusion: religious people consistently are better at bridling their hedonistic urges than those who aren’t religious, those who go to church only for social reasons or those who consider themselves spiritual but don’t practice a specific faith.

The research, by psychologists Michael McCullough and Brian Willoughby will appear in the Psychological Bulletin. The Times article was written by John Tierney.

On first glance, a skeptic might guess there’s an alternate interpretation: perhaps the kinds of people who gravitate toward religion were already endowed with a fair amount of self-control. That is, it takes discipline just to roll out of bed on Sunday morning, make it to the service on time and sit through a boring sermon. Maybe religion itself has little impact on people’s self-discipline.

Not so. McCullough and Willoughby took that predisposition into account. Even after the self-selection bias was factored out, people of faith exhibited more self-control than their less religious counterparts.

“The rituals that religions have been encouraging for thousands of years seem to be a kind of anaerobic workout for self-control,” McCullough told the Times.

And religious people also don’t control themselves primarily because they’re afraid God will zap them to hell if they eat that extra slice of pie. Instead, the religious control themselves “because they’ve absorbed the ideals of their religion into their own system of values, and have thereby given their personal goals an aura of sacredness,” Tierney wrote.

In other words, religious people are better at overcoming destructive impulses, and at developing beneficial habits, because they tend to believe God wants them to do these things-and because they simultaneously believe God is helping them. They thus have an extra motivation, and they also feel they’re not in their struggles alone.

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