Do human beings have free will?
It might seem like an ancient philosophical question better placed in conversation amongst Epicureans and Stoics. But as we have continued to refine our technology in the present…and get a sense of how our brains work…it has become an increasingly modern and relevant question.
Statistically, for example, we are more likely to die from eating too much fast food than we are to die from a terrorist attack. Chronic stress is more harmful than hurricanes (at least…it is if the stress is believed to be bad…see Kelly McGonical’s talk on how stress can be your friend for more information there). And if you want to live a life of happiness…our behaviors are far more important than are the outcomes of those behaviors (see Shawn Achor’s talk on positive psychology and success at work).
In other words…if you want to live a long life and a happy one, we are far better served in developing better habits and behavior patterns in our every day lives than we are in constantly waiting for the mythical “when” to happen. Put in better terms…it’s more important to kiss your partner every morning than it is to stay at work for 18 hours a day and take her on a five-day cruise at the end of a year. It’s better to exercise 20 minutes each day than it is to take antidepressants.
Theoretically, if we really did have free will (the ability to make conscious choices about our behaviors), then we would always make choices that are good for us. And we all claim to have free will. And yet…we continue to make choices that cause us harm. EVEN when we desperately want to make better ones.
Because free will, for the most part, doesn’t exist. Or…to the extent that it does exist, it depends GREATLY on our relative capacity day by day. And our capacity is dependent on factors we have little to no control over (our genetics, our experiences, our patterns, our relationships…and so on)
For example…I didn’t choose to be have a highly sensitive nervous system. I simply have one. I didn’t choose to be female. Trust me, if I were floating up in the sky, somewhere, and asked before being born “what do you think? You’re going to be born in America. In 1986. Girl? Boy? Do you want a highly sensitive nervous system? A standard one?” I would have said “Are you crazy? OF COURSE a boy. I’m no dummy. Men have way more fun down there! And are you looking at how much more money they make? I mean…one in three women will be raped at some point in their lifetime. Nah uh. Not interested. XY ME! And what is this about a sensitive nervous system? Ummmm….looking at that ADHD culture…I’m pretty sure I would be far better served having a thicker skin. Don’t you?”
But that’s not how I came out. I arrived in this world born to parents I didn’t choose in a body I had no part in selecting.
Does that mean I have absolutely no power? No…that’s not what I’m saying. But I am saying that given the limitations of the wiring I was put on this planet with…I am better served applying deliberate skills and habits that support what I eventually want to achieve than I am relying on some mythical will power muscle to carry me across the finish line. Here’s why:
- 1) Your capacity to exert willpower is influenced by how well you slept last night. Let’s say you went to bed at 9pm. But for some reason, you just couldn’t get to sleep. You tossed and turned…but nothing. Finally you fell into slumber around 3am only to wake up at 6am. You get up, take a shower, and head over to a coffee shop to get some life juice in your system. Will you be more likely to pick black coffee and a protein plate from the refrigerator? Or will you be more likely to get a caramel machi-awesome with extra whip and a blueberry scone? You certainly can pick the healthier option. But your capacity to do so is hindered. When you are sleep deprived, the part of the brain that is responsible for making high-level and long-term-reward decisions (the prefrontal cortex) is handicapped. So if you are relying on willpower…good luck! What might be a better alternative? If you planned your meal in advance, and you had your food in a grab-and-go bag with some cold pressed coffee ready to go in the morning…you’re going to be much more likely to consume the healthy foods you prepped than to stop at the coffee shop. Why? Because that is now the easier option. No one ever plans to fail. They just sometimes fail to plan.
- 2) Your willpower muscle gets fatigued over the course of the day. We need to make a lot of decisions throughout the day. Left or right? Park here or there? Hold the door open or just march right on in? Low fat milk or whole milk? Small or large? None of them are especially hard….but after an entire day of making them, your will-power center starts getting tired. This is why people tend to make better decisions with regard to their health at the start of the day and less healthy choices by the end of the evening. You just spent 8 – 10 hours at work. You think that didn’t take some willpower? It did. Now you’re tired. And your brain isn’t interested in long-term goals. It wants Ben and Jerry and a spoon and Kevin Spacey on Netflix…NOW. This is why, if you don’t bring ice cream into the house, and instead have meals prepped for when you get home, you’re more likely to make healthier choices. It works much better when you arrange your world for success than if you just hope that you will muscle your hand away from the freezer.
- 3) We are influenced by the people around us. Did you know that if your friend gains weight, you are 50% more likely to gain weight, yourself? If your friend loses weight…..same thing. Why? Because we are social creatures and we are heavily influenced by the people around us. Sure…if you set a goal to eat healthy, you can do it no matter how many doughnuts that are brought into the break room. But think about it. You have your salad from home. Your friend comes up and asks “you wanna go across the street and grab a coffee and a scone with me? I’m having a hell of a day…” What do you do? Or one further…let’s say you are on a health kick, but your spouse really isn’t onboard. Can you continue eating steamed broccoli and chicken while your partner consumes his/her third slice of pizza? Sure you can! But will you? Be honest. This is why it is SO important to have support whenever you want to embark on a long-term goal. You want connections with people who will want to join you in your journey, take walks with you, and encourage you to meditate. If you don’t have that available to you, your chances of success simply are not very high.
- 4) No matter how strong you think your willpower muscle is…if you don’t have any means to track your progress…how will you know its working? Lets say you want to begin saving money for retirement. You put some things in place. You make a commitment to save 20% of your money every month. How will you know you were successful? You would look at your checkbook or online banking account and assess how much money came in, and how much money went back out. And you will track the money you continue to save in your account over time to see how you’re doing. If you don’t monitor your progress…theoretically you could still succeed. But good luck! It’s imperative that you have some means of tracking your progress with whatever goal it is that you have. If you want to lose weight, that means tracking your food, exercise, and weight on some level. If you want to improve your mood, it means developing a rubric for your mood each day and keeping an account of where it scales (and tracking your exercise and stress management minutes). Is it a pain? Maybe. But willpower alone won’t get you there.
- 5) When it comes to long-term change, if we don’t have a reward system in place, we simply aren’t likely to continue doing it. I hear all the time from people who are on a mission to lose weight. They say “I don’t need a reward. Weight loss is my reward.” Fine. But what happens when you have lost the weight? How will you continue to maintain your loss long-term? You have to do the same behaviors to KEEP the weight off that you did to get the weight off in the first place. This is why it’s so important to have a built-in reward system for behaviors rather than rewards for results. For example, you could commit to paying yourself X dollars every time you engage in exercise. Save that money up and when it gets to a certain amount…go get a massage. That way, you aren’t being forced to wait until you get the result you want. Instead, you’re rewarding the behavior, itself. THAT is what will make it stick. AND that’s what will lead to success in the long term anyway.
I’m not saying that it isn’t worthwhile to build up on your willpower muscle. Yes – get some sleep so that you have more capacity the next day. Yes – you will need to say “no” to the cookies if you are trying to manage your blood sugar. Willpower will need to be a part of the equation without a doubt. All I’m trying to say is that willpower alone isn’t a very reliable variable to rely on. It should just be one tool amongst a set of skills you use to get to your long-term goal.