Willpower is a mongrel concept, one that connotes a wide and often inconsistent range of cognitive functions. The closer we look, the more it appears to unravel…
It’s certainly not an attribute of which we have a limited store, and the more we use the more likely we are to fall prey later to temptation. If anything, the contrary is true: that with practice, it becomes easier to resist temptation.
The roots of the concept of willpower are linked to the Christian notion of sin. During the 19th century, the continued waning of religion, huge population increases, and widespread poverty led to social anxieties about whether the growing underclass would uphold proper moral standards. Self-control became a Victorian obsession, as it was conflated with obedience of the underclass to their moral superiors, who had economic hegemony.
Today, framing in terms of willpower remains a convenient way to blame the downtrodden for their condition; this kind of thinking is the foundation of a decades-long conservative campaign to deny housing, education, and medical care to the “undeserving poor”.
In fact, emotional self-regulation is a complex function, and as we’ve long known in psychotherapy, trying to willfully manage your emotional states through brute force alone is bound to fail. Instead, regulating emotions also includes skills such as shifting attention (distracting yourself), modulating your physiological response (taking deep breaths), being able to tolerate and wait out the negative feelings, and reframing beliefs.
If measures of willpower are associated with achievement and success, it might be because the capacity for hard work and sacrifice breeds success (the traditional interpretation), but equally plausible is the hypothesis that in the context of a satisfying, fulfilling life, it is no sacrifice to delay gratification.