There are many factors that contribute to the success or failure of a person in life. Some people seem to have it all... health, wealth, and overall success. While others seem to be caught in a web of poverty, failure, and despair. Are there factors in early childhood that can accurately predict the future life status of individuals?
Yes, absolutely! Some factors may include: genes, their environment, their social status, or IQ. But, according to some longitudinal studies, none of the above factors are as powerful in predicting success in life as willpower, self-discipline, and delayed gratification.
First of all, let's define willpower. It consists of three components- 1) the ability to voluntarily disengage our focus from a powerful object of desire, 2) the ability to resist distraction and maintain our focus, and 3) the ability to maintain our focus on a goal in the future. These three skills add up to "willpower."
But, how can a marshmallow predict your future? In the 1970's, Walter Mischel, a psychologist at Stanford University, conducted a study called the "marshmallow test." Mischel invited four-year-olds one by one into a "game room" at the Bing Nursery School located at the university. They were shown a tray with marshmallows and invited to pick one that they would like. Then, they were given the following instructions. "You can have your treat now, if you want. But, if you don't eat it until I come back from running an errand, you can then have two." The examiner then left for a full fifteen minutes.
You can imagine how difficult these instructions were to follow for a four-year-old! Will power and self-discipline are major feats for children of this age. As it turned out, about one-third grabbed the marshmallow immediately when the examiner left. One-third waited the full fifteen minutes and were then rewarded with two marshmallows. The last third fell somewhere in the middle.
The most significant outcome was that the children who were able to resist the temptation of the sweet treat achieved greater success later in their lives. They did better in school. They had better social relationships, and tended to be more successful adults.
This was further supported by the Dunedin study of New Zealand. 1,037 children were assessed after twenty years for their health, wealth, and involvement in crime. The conclusion was that the better their self-control in childhood, the better the Dunedin kids were doing in their thirties. They tended to have sounder health, were more successful financially, and were less likely to be involved in crime. The worse their childhood impulse management, the lower their financial status, the poorer their health, and the more likely to have a criminal record.
The shocking conclusion was that, a child's level of self-control is as powerful a predictor of financial success, health, and criminal involvement as are social class, wealth of family of origin, or IQ. Willpower is a powerful determinant of adult success. High self-control and the ability to delay gratification predicts not just good grades, but also good emotional adjustment, and better interpersonal skills.
So, how does a person, especially an adult, develop willpower, self-control, and the ability to delay gratification? Willpower comes from the ability to control the thought processes that come from what is called the "executive function" part of the brain. These are the thoughts that without realizing it, are yelling at us inside our heads... "Eat the marshmallow! Eat it NOW!" For some adults, it may sound like... "Eat the cookies! Eat them now! Eat them ALL!" For others, it may sound like... "Bet the money now! Bet ALL of it!" Regardless of what your brain is telling you, you can manage these self-defeating thoughts as follows:
Disengage your focus from the object of desire by distracting yourself, or by reframing the object. For example you might say, "Those aren't really cookies, they're round coasters." Turn them into an inedible object. Change the desired object into something that is not desirable. Visualize it in your head.
Maintain your focus on what you DO want. If you want to lose weight, maintain your thoughts on losing weight. Don't let your brain go on automatic or else you will likely grab for those sugary, fattening snacks.
Maintain your focus on your long-term goal. If your goal is to lose weight, maintain your focus and your thoughts on the benefits you will gain when you do lose the weight. For example, you will be healthier. You will be able to move better. Your clothes will fit better, and you will like yourself more. This is not easy to do as you have to retrain your brain and what it is telling you.
You want to use "self-talk." It may sound like this... "I am a person who only weighs ____. I wear a size _____. I am able to walk, and dance, and run. I love the way I look, and I love the way I feel." Write this on a 3 by 5 card and review it at least daily. *You may also want to give your brain a boost by using visualization. Place pictures of yourself around the refrigerator of you when you were your optimal weight, or achieving your ultimate goal.
These skills of course are not mastered overnight! They require long-term focus in order for your brain to be retrained. It's not easy, but it's well worth it. Master your "willpower" and master your destiny! Don't eat the marshmallow until it's time and guarantee your success in health, wealth, and life!
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