Willpower, grit, stick-to-itiveness––regardless of its name, this trait is held up as a fundamental American virtue. Willpower can be loosely defined as the ability to delay gratification, to put long-term benefit before immediate temptation. It is arguably the most important determinate of success in college. Despite recent findings about the value of self-control, college students are seen as less productive than ever. This is perhaps explained by the false dichotomy between having a social life and being productive. In reality, self-control may be as much about looking outward as much as it is looking forward.
Stanford University psychologist Walter Mischel conducted a classic series of experiments on delayed gratification beginning in the 1960s. Pre-school students were presented with a single marshmallow. They were told that if they waited to eat it, they would be given two. Mischel found that over the following decades, those who waited longer for the second marshmallow as kids were more likely to have higher average SAT scores, be financially stable and less likely to be obese.
Average study time among college students is steadily declining nationwide in defiance of colleges’ recommendations to study two to three hours per subject per week. The false dichotomy between emotion and logic––between social atmosphere and productivity––perpetuates the idea of the hard worker as aloof, introverted or indifferent to their desires. Mischel’s work suggests, however, that such a disposition is largely innate or the result of upbringing. Most people are very emotional and social; college is likely to be the most hyper-social time in their lives. This feeling of community may actually be the key to happy productivity.
Daniel Desteno of Northeastern University has proposed that social emotions are not the enemy of self-control, but rather that they are crucial to mastering it.
“While willpower certainly offers assistance, we’ve been neglecting the weapon that comes straight from our nature as innately social beings, not just rational, calculating loners,” Desteno said. Just as athletes tend to benefit from emotions like excitement or anger, emotions like gratefulness and pride can improve our ability to resist temptation.
Part of the problem is that we are taught to be “humble” about our professional or scholastic accomplishments. Everybody is quick to highlight their incredible procrastination and accomplishments are seen as more impressive if they were achieved effortlessly. The result is mutual, negative reinforcement: thinking that other people are innately more talented.
Everyone can play a part in creating an environment where work is seen as part of, not the opposite of, social culture. Don’t be afraid to let your friend know that they should take a break from a Netflix marathon to study for their test. If their work pays off, congratulate them. Studies by Desteno suggest that the feeling of pride when one’s work is recognized and appreciated––even in small ways––makes the work seem less toilsome and more rewarding.
The significance of delayed gratification are more than an awards shelf, secure finances or good health. Economist Robert Frank, who developed the original idea of emotional self-regulation, conjectured that these emotions exist to make us better members of a society. Self-control reaps social as well as personal benefits.
Grades can often seem arbitrary, so it is easy to forget that we are at Geneseo for a reason. Be grateful for the wonderful and rare opportunity to get an education, or think of the positive impact you can have on others. That can be the little push it takes to find purpose in the drudgery.