Happiness Through Self-Discipline

When we think of self-discipline, we often think of some dour Puritan who, in the immortal words of H.L. Mencken, is beset by “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere is having a good time.” Self-discipline might be a good way to gain some far-off future reward, we tell ourselves, but what a drag it is in the present, right? Well, maybe not. Recent research suggests that in fact, people who are self-discipled are, on average, happier than those who are not – a happiness that is not just anticipation of future rewards, but happiness in the present moment. Perhaps, as A Course in Miracles affirms, self-discipline applied in the right way toward the right goal really is the way to happiness here and now, as well as in the future.

I read about this research in a Time article by Maia Szalavitz entitled “Self-Disciplined People Are Happier (and Not as Deprived as You Think).” In this article, she summarized research that was published in the Journal of Personality. The goal of this research was to determine whether self-control was correlated with happiness, unhappiness, or neither. In other words, how is self-control connected to our emotional well-being, both in the short term (our immediate emotional state) and the long term (our general life satisfaction)?

To answer this question, the researchers did three separate studies. In one test, they assessed the self-discipline of 414 middle-aged people and also asked them questions about their past and present life satisfaction. In another, they randomly questioned volunteers on smartphones about the moods and desires the volunteers were experiencing at the moment. (Presumably they also asked these volunteers questions aimed at discerning their level of self-control, though this wasn’t stated in the article.) In both tests, the researchers found a strong correlation between self-discipline and happiness – both short-term and long-term happiness. In the researchers’ words, “feeling good rather than bad may be a core benefit of having good self-control, and being well satisfied with life is an important consequence.”

The smartphone test produced another finding that was very interesting: People who have good self-control are happier not so much because they resist temptations, but because they set up their lives so they don’t encounter so many temptations in the first place. In the words of the article, “They were, in essence, setting themselves up to happy.” Or in the words of Kathleen Vohs, one of the co-authors of the research report: “People who have good self-control do a number of things that bring them happiness – namely, they avoid problematic desires and conflict.”

This was also revealed in the third and final study. In this test, the researchers looked at the relationship between self-control and conflicting goals. How did self-disciplined versus non-self-disciplined people differ when it came to making decisions between conflicting goals – in particular, between what could be called “virtues” (like eating your vegetables) and “vices” (like eating that hot fudge sundae)? Over 230 people were asked 1) to name three areas of life in which they regularly experienced conflicting goals, 2) to rate how strong the conflict was, 3) to share how often they experienced this conflict, and 4) how they balanced these conflicting goals.

The results? The people who were more self-disciplined created fewer situations in their lives in which conflicting goals were an issue, and thus had fewer instances of having to choose between their “virtues” and “vices.” Most importantly, these people also experienced fewer negative emotions, likely as a result of avoiding these conflicts. As the researchers say, “one interpretation of this finding is that people use self-control to set up their lives so as to avoid problems.” If they don’t want the hot fudge sundae, they don’t go anywhere near the ice cream shop.

Putting all of the tests together, the research as a whole arrived at what perhaps may be a surprising conclusion. It turns out that self-discipline isn’t the drag we think it is. In the words of the article: “It’s easy to think of the highly self-disciplined as being miserable misers or uptight Puritans, but it turns out that exerting self-control can make you happier not only in the long run, but also in the moment.”

If this is so, if self-discipline is really the road to happiness, why do we so readily associate it with dreariness and drudgery? Surely part of the answer lies in the way we perceive it, which is reflected in and perhaps also influenced by images of self-discipline in the popular imagination. Our typical attitude toward self-discipline is expressed well in the delightful movie Chocolat, in which Juliette Binoche opens up a chocolate shop and wins over the conservative townspeople with her sweet treats. We associate self-discipline with the rigid mayor of that town, and happiness with the beautiful woman’s tempting chocolates. And of course, it must be said that self-discipline done the wrong way for the wrong reasons – for instance, as sacrifice or self-punishment – truly can lead to unhappiness. To draw from another movie image, none of us would want to be the self-flagellating monk in The Da Vinci Code. That would be drudgery indeed!

But to associate all self-discipline with drudgery is a false association. The article I’m drawing on notes this, saying that this association “may only be a perception, since it results from our tendency to focus on the difficulty of exercising discipline rather than the benefits that result when we do.” And this insight leads me directly to the Course, for in its view, self-discipline done the right way for the right reasons is nothing less than the engine which “will make the goal of the course possible” (W-In.1:2). Since “an untrained mind can accomplish nothing” (W-In.1:3), it is the “long-range disciplinary training” (W-pI.65.4:4) provided by the practices of the Course that will awaken us to the infinite happiness of God that we all want above all things.

The author of the Course is fully aware of our usual tendency to associate self-discipline with drudgery, so he takes pains early in the Workbook to associate the right kind of discipline with happiness instead. This happens in Lesson 20. In the first nineteen lessons, the practice instructions have been minimal, but here Jesus is going to introduce more structure and greater frequency to our practicing. Anticipating our natural tendency to pull away from the yoke, he stresses the great benefits such discipline will bring:

This is our first attempt to introduce structure. Do not misconstrue it as an effort to exert force or pressure. You want salvation. You want to be happy. You want peace. You do not have them now, because your mind is totally undisciplined, and you cannot distinguish between joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, love and fear. You are now learning how to tell them apart. And great indeed will be your reward. (W-pI.20.2:1-8)

We think that when Jesus introduces this more-structured practice, he is cracking the whip and making us miserable. But no, he says: It is for our happiness. Our minds are so undisciplined that not only are we not happy, but we’re not even capable of telling happiness and pain apart. We’re like an alcoholic who keeps reaching for the bottle, thinking it will bring him solace as it actually drives him further into the gutter. But the mental discipline of Course practice will help us distinguish between happiness and pain, and finally choose the happiness that only God can give. “And great indeed will be your reward.”

A major reason for the disciplined structure that Jesus gives for our Course practice is that it helps keep us focused on the goal of the Course. The research I just examined ties happiness to avoiding conflicting goals, and the Course shares this emphasis. The “Lessons of the Holy Spirit” section of the Text (T-6.V) depicts the entire spiritual journey as a journey from being torn apart by conflicting goals to putting your entire mind behind the one goal of “[Being] vigilant only for God and His Kingdom” (T-6.V.C.2:8). Keeping our minds on this goal is the reason for the disciplined practice Jesus gives us: “Structure, then, is necessary for you at this time, planned to include frequent reminders of your goal and regular attempts to reach it” (W-pI.95.6:1).

So, the self-discipline Jesus gives us helps us to avoid conflicting goals, just like those happy people in those studies. If you’ll recall, the researchers emphasized that people with self-control are happy not so much because they resist temptation, but because they set up their lives in such a way that they avoid temptation in the first place. They set themselves up to be happy. This too is a Course emphasis. In Jesus’ personal guidance to Helen and Bill, after describing a disastrous day they had which he labeled a “chain of miscreation,” he made the point that while a chain of misthought can be undone with effort, it’s a lot better to never let it get started:

It is very hard to get out of the chain of miscreation which can arise out of even the simplest mis-thought. To borrow one of your own phrases, “This kind of human tragedy is far easier to avert than to undo.” You must both learn not to let this kind of chain reaction start. (Urtext)

How could they keep the chain reaction (in which they were constantly torn between conflicting goals) from starting? By disciplining their minds to avoid conflicts before they snowballed: “Mind-watching would have prevented any of this from occurring, and will do so any time you permit it to” (Urtext).

We see something similar in the “Rules for Decision” section of the Text (T-30.I). In this section, Jesus calls upon us to root our entire day in two central practices:

1) At the beginning of the day, imagine the happy day you want and commit to the means for achieving that happy day by saying, “Today I will make no decisions by myself” (T-30.I.2:2).

2) Whenever you have a quiet moment during the day, think again about the happy day you want and say, “If I make no decisions by myself, this is the day that will be given me” (T-30.I.4:2).

Why should we do this? He says, “These two procedures, practiced well, will serve to let you be directed without fear, for opposition will not first arise and then become a problem in itself” (T-30.I.4:3). In other words, if we do this well, we will set up our day in such a way that we are so focused on our goal that temptation to turn away from it (“opposition”) is less likely to arise in the first place, just as with those happily disciplined people in the studies.

This pattern of setting up our day to avoid temptation runs throughout the Course’s practice instructions. We “arrange [our] day so that [we] have set apart the time for God” (W-pI.65.4:3) to keep ourselves from spending the day in the ego’s ice cream shop. Of course, when we are tempted to stray from our goal (which the Course assumes will happen often, given how mistake prone our ego-ridden minds are), the Course gives us countless “response to temptation” practices to get back on track – the rest of the “Rules for Decision” section offers us such practices. But ideally we avoid the temptation to abandon the goal of God and wolf down the ego’s hot fudge sundae by keeping our eyes on the prize at all times.

An interesting question arises for me as I contemplate all this. In those studies, it appears that the self-discipline exhibited by those happier people is mainly behavioral self-discipline. The Course’s emphasis, on the other hand, is clearly on mental self-discipline, on watching our thoughts. But is behavioral self-discipline included in the Course’s system?

I think so. For starters, doing the Course’s exercises as instructed, in addition to being a mental discipline, is also a form of behavioral discipline: We are supposed to perform certain actions (going to a quiet place, closing our eyes, repeating words, etc.) at certain times during the day. Plus, we often see Jesus exhorting Helen and Bill to behave in ways that are more in accord with the goal of God, even “small” acts like being courteous to other people: “There are ways of treating others in which only consistent courtesy, even in very little things, is offered. This is a very healing habit to acquire” (Urtext). And of course, the whole Course is training us to perform miracles, behavioral expressions (of changed minds) that we must discipline with Jesus’ help, lest they become “indiscriminate” like Edgar Cayce’s miracles apparently were (Urtext).

In his counsel on how to respond to inappropriate sexual impulses, we even see Jesus affirming behavioral self-control as a useful expedient while simultaneously working on transforming the impulse into a holier expression: “Self-control is not the whole answer to this problem, though I am by no means discouraging its use. It must be understood, however, that the underlying mechanism must be uprooted” (Urtext). In short, then, while mental self-discipline is paramount to the Course, behavioral self-discipline has its place too – as a means of doing the practice that heals our minds, as a way of being kind to others while our minds are being healed, and as an expression of healed minds.

The verdict seems to be in, then: Self-discipline is the way to happiness. And I think that as much as we chomp at the bit when someone puts us in the harness, somewhere deep down we get this. Without such discipline, we are like a chariot without a driver, as the Eastern traditions say. Our lives are pure chaos as our minds are pulled this way and that by every impulse, as we “rock and turn and whirl about with every breeze” (T-24.III.3:7). How can we really be happy in such a maelstrom? What a relief to learn the blessed means to the one goal that gives us the happiness that is our eternal heart’s desire:

All that is needful is to train our minds to overlook all little senseless aims, and to remember that our goal is God. His memory is hidden in our minds, obscured but by our pointless little goals which offer nothing, and do not exist. Shall we continue to allow God’s grace to shine in unawareness, while the toys and trinkets of the world are sought instead? God is our only goal, our only Love. We have no aim but to remember Him. (W-pII.258.1:1-5)

Source of material reported on: Self-Disciplined People Are Happier (and Not as Deprived as You Think)

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
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