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For decades, psychologists and social scientists have looked for ways to improve our abilities; our mental health, success, well-being, and happiness.

They have explored the possibility of raising IQ in individuals. They have sought to understand and transform unconscious processes – or change the external "stimuli" of a person’s world for the better. For a time, it was also believed that raising self-esteem would support success and personal growth across the board.

None of this has panned out very well.

  • IQ seems to be fairly constant over an individual person’s lifetime – though statistically, improving diet and cultural changes have raised these at a steady rate across the population (in fact, in the U.S., the abstract reasoning element of IQ has grown about three points per decade for the past 100 years, what’s known as the "Flynn effect").
  • Unconscious processes are, well, unconscious, so they are difficult to measure and assess. Meanwhile, changing external stimuli introduces problems related to who chooses the stimuli and for what purpose, and can lead us dangerously close to well-intentioned tyranny. And again, it’s not as effective as was believed.
  • Finally, high self-esteem, alas, seems not to predict all the positive qualities that were hoped for – in fact, criminals, it turns out, have very high self-esteem.

But there is one quality that we can improve significantly, on purpose, as individuals, that leads to positive consequences across the spectrum of our life experiences.


People with stronger willpower are happier, are better adjusted, have fewer personal problems, have better mental and physical health, have better relationships, have less prejudice, and live longer.

At the other end of the spectrum, criminals – though they may have high self-esteem – tend to have very little self-control, including with non-criminal behaviors such as smoking and drinking.

The wonderful thing, though, is that willpower can be strengthened. Like a muscle, when we use our willpower, in the short term we get fatigued and our willpower wanes. But in the long term, the more we exercise our willpower, the stronger it becomes, and the more endurance we build.

Roy Baumeister of Florida State University, and the leading researcher on willpower, has a wonderful book whose subtitle sums it up: Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.

Growing our willpower is the most promising and practically useful activity that psychology has yet studied.

If we want to grow stronger in our willpower, we can effectively train it. But remember the muscle analogy: nobody sets out to improve their physical strength by waking up one morning and running a marathon. That would likely land them in the hospital, unless they had been training to build their strength and endurance over time. It’s the same with willpower.

If we get inspired to make changes in our lives, we may have a list of behaviors we’d like to tackle – quit smoking, eat a healthier diet, pay more attention to our spouses and children, exercise regularly, read more good books…

The list can be endless. And if we try to change all of them at once, we’re likely to pull something somewhere. Only it won’t be a hamstring muscle.

What will happen is we’ll become overwhelmed, find that we can’t do it all, and then all too often, we’ll give up on the whole project. Next thing we know, we’re down at the donut shop, smoking a cigarette, ignoring our family, and forgetting about that exercise class we had scheduled.

Here’s the good news: willpower generalizes – whenever we strengthen our willpower in one area, we strengthen it in other areas as well. It doesn’t matter what we decide to focus on, when we choose something to practice regularly, that practice will help us with every other area where we need to grow our willpower.

Here’s how to go about training your own willpower to become stronger over time:
Pick one behavior that you’d like to change – not some huge, life transforming behemoth of a mission, but a simple, well-defined task that you can manage and stick with. It could be deciding not to use swear words in your everyday speech, or eliminating sodas from your diet, or joining an exercise class.

Make sure that it’s something you can do without too much trouble. Then define when and where you will start doing it. Most importantly, stick with it! After several weeks of maintaining your program, you’ll find that the new behavior has become more of a habit, and in the meantime, you have developed a little more willpower that you can apply to something else.

At that point, you can add a little more to your willpower training regimen… just like you’d add weight or repetitions or laps to your physical training routine.

But take it at a pace you can manage – willpower is about self-discipline, and nobody ever grew their self-discipline by indulging their impulses… even an impulse to push themselves too hard. When it comes to willpower, Aesop’s tortoise is the model: slow and steady wins the race.

If you want to genuinely improve your life, start by growing your willpower.

Joel F. Wade, Ph.D. is the author of Mastering Happiness. He is a marriage and family therapist and life coach who works with people around the world via phone and Skype. You can get a FREE Learning Optimism E-Course if you sign up at his website,

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