Will You Win With Willpower?

marshmallowsWhenever I travel, I bring back a present for my son Grant. It is as much for me as it is for him, as it soothes my momma guilt for being away…at least a little bit. He used to be over the moon excited about simple trinkets like a key-chain, or a book. Mexican jumping beans were a big hit: he proudly proclaimed them as his new pets. But now that he is 5-and-a-HALF (his emphasis), his tastes are becoming more sophisticated. Batteries are now a necessity for enthusiasm. It takes searching to find something that will strike his electronic fancy within my $10 budget. A small Star Wars light saber was a big hit recently. He always wants me to tell him what I’m bringing home—the suspense is hard on him.

We were recently under heavy negotiations for a new device. He wanted a small portable DVD player, like the one he had destroyed last year by prying it apart trying to figure out its inner-workings. We have an iPad, but he is often frustrated if he can’t get a Wi-Fi connection for a movie, or if the PBS Kids signal is buffering. I have not been too swift with downloading movies on it for him.

I told him that he couldn’t get new things all the time, and that he had to wait for a birthday or holiday. Negotiations continued, loudly; my likelihood of needing hearing aids in the next year increased significantly. But I held firm…sort of. I had a trip coming up. A thought crossed my mind: maybe I can run a little experiment to test his willpower?

I had read about the marshmallow game, a study run by psychologists in which pre-school age children were offered an immediate marshmallow, or two marshmallows if they could wait a few minutes until the researcher came back to the room. About 1/3 of the children were able to hold off long enough to earn the reward of a second treat. They did a follow-up study 40 years later and found that those children who had the willpower to resist the temptation of the immediate marshmallow had more success as adults, with better grades, higher self-esteem and bigger bank accounts.

I told him that since I had a conference trip coming up, I would consider giving him the DVD player as his trip present. I offered that we could go purchase it later today, but this would be the only gift and I would not bring back any surprise presents. OR, if he could wait until I got home, I would give him the DVD player plus an additional gift. I was not surprised that my intense little boy chose immediate gratification. I will likely have a teaching moment when I return later this week with empty hands and remind him of our deal.

Willpower is a complex mind-body response that gives us the ability to resist short-term gratification in pursuit of long-term goals or objectives. Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD calls willpower the pause-and-plan response that puts your body in a calmer state in order to withstand temptation and potentially self-destructive urges. It also activates the brain’s pre-frontal cortex to access the mindset and motivation for long-term good. Stress on the other hand, activates the flight-or-flight response, and depletes the energy needed to make wiser, big-picture choices. Adequate sleep, a healthy diet and mindful breathing to settle the stress response will improve your access to willpower.

Studies also show that willpower reserves get drained over the course of the day, even when tasks are unrelated, such as controlling emotions, saying no to dessert or focusing on a report. But McGonigal feels that willpower can be trained like muscle…practicing can increase the strength and stamina of willpower. The keys appear to be meditation and exercise, both aerobic and yoga practices. These actually create measurable changes in the previously mentioned pre-frontal cortex area of the brain.

Grant gets plenty of aerobic exercise, and he does a version of the yoga pose downward dog that he calls two-legged dog. Hilarious, especially to Mom. And we work on deep-breathing, especially to blow away frustration and anger. But I think it might be awhile until I can get him meditating, and when he does he’ll likely be pondering gadgets and wires, along with the meaning of life. We’ll see how far his willpower will take him then!