Faith & Science
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June 2024

Early last month, The Atlantic ran an article by Arthur Brooks on “Why a Bit of Restraint Can Do You a Lot of Good” (May 2, 2024). In it, he argues that “the lowering of self-control,” which seems to characterize this current age, “was an understandable but significant error in our collective thinking, and it took us in exactly the wrong direction where happiness is concerned.”

Brooks briefly summarizes several psychological studies exploring the relationship between self-control and happiness. He notes that a useful hypothesis in thinking about “self-management” is to imagine two different governing systems. The first, the behavioral activation system, responds to incentives like rewards to motivate us to act. The second, the behavioral inhibition system, keeps us from acting because of a fear of punishment or other negative consequences.

I like to imagine these two systems as sitting on opposite ends of a teeter-totter. When the behavioral activation system goes up, the behavioral inhibition system goes down, and we demonstrate less self-control. When the behavioral inhibition system goes up, the behavioral activation system goes down, and we are more self-controlled.

Brooks notes that, in the short term, either state of affairs – being more self-controlled or less – makes us happy. I expect most of us have experienced this when we have a temporary release from restrictions that had kept us from doing what we wanted or, alternatively, when we have newly committed to some system of self-discipline like a diet or exercise regime. However, in the long term, Brooks reports, “researchers found that low levels of self-control were associated with the lowest levels of subjective well-being. Moving to a higher level of self-control increased… happiness.”

For Catholic Christians, the idea that self-control makes us happier should come as no surprise. From the Church’s earliest days, we have been admonished to get control of ourselves. St. Paul, for example, writes “every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).” For Paul, self-control is both the path toward and the indication of our spiritual health.

In the Rule of St. Benedict, we read that “the second step of humility is that a man loves not his own will nor takes pleasure in the satisfaction of his desires” (Rule of St. Benedict, chp 7). Fr. Phillip Laurence, OSB, comments on this passage: “It is a discipline for me to deny my own desires. I do this, not in some sadistic or masochistic way, but simply in the ordinary things of life. The purpose of such an activity is to free me, so that I can recognize that there are lots of things that I do that bind me. The whole challenge of the spiritual life is to become free in order to do God’s will.” It is, of course, only in doing God’s will that we will find our true happiness.

The traditional practice of daily mortification is an excellent way to practice self-control, grow in spiritual health, and gradually free ourselves from those things that bind us. Although the word is old-fashioned, the practice is surprisingly current among health and wellness influencers. Take, for example, the heroic minute. This is the moment when you wake up. Rather than hitting the snooze button, lying in bed, or grabbing the phone and scrolling, get up. Get up and consecrate your day to God. Another simple practice that has been shown to help with feelings of anxiety and depression is to take a cold shower, or at least to finish your daily shower with a minute of cold water. Other recommendations include denying yourself small pleasures in food or drink, not having the last word in a conversation, or not complaining.

Whatever mortification you choose for the day, it is important to follow three guidelines to reap the maximum psychological and spiritual benefit. First, lest your mortification become a source of pride, make sure that it is a small, hidden action between you and God. Second, offer up your mortification for an intention. In other words, unite your small sacrifice to Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. Finally, your daily mortification should not deny basic needs or compromise the integrity of the body. Our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) and must, therefore, be treated with honor and respect.

Both science and our Christian tradition remind us that self-control is essential for happiness. There is no need to wait for Lent to make a sacrifice or for your next Confession to practice penance. Tomorrow morning, when your alarm goes off, is the perfect time to start building a happier, holier life.

Amanda Alexander is currently the Director of the Department of Ministry Formation Institute for the Diocese and a parishioner of St. Adelaide in Highland. She has a Ph.D. in systematic theology and has taught at numerous Catholic universities.