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No Such Thing As Willpower?

The Roanoke Times

Forever, it seems, I've labored under the guilt-ridden illusion that insufficient willpower had something to do with a thickening girth and an occasional indulgence in watching an action movie on TV rather than settling down with a literary classic, or at least a magazine article.

Parents, teachers, coaches and ill-tempered sergeants had insisted that the disciplined exertion of willpower against the baser temptations of sloth, gluttony and other moral frailties was essential to building sufficient character to overcome most adversity. What adversity couldn't be overcome should at least be borne with a modicum of quiet longsuffering, if not grace. Imagine my relief to read of the scientific evidence that willpower is really a myth, especially as it relates to such primal endeavors as dieting. A number of psychologists around the country consider the entire notion of willpower to be just another artifact of quaint but misguided folklore.

After long, sophisticated research, those experts now understand that success at, say, dieting, comes as the result of a complex interaction of brain chemicals, hormones and genetic predisposition, although they admit that to some extent those factors are influenced by behavioral conditioning and habit.

Some folks are just naturally wired to lose weight. Others - not to be confused with those who have been diagnosed with glandular irregularities - must reconcile themselves to abundant body mass.

Some people's coding allows them to redirect certain personal proclivities, while others with the same proclivities but who are differently coded persist in the blissful ingestion of mood-altering substances, or obsessive-compulsive shopping, gambling or chronic DVD-watching, whatever.

In other words, if you keep raiding the refrigerator every night for six extra scoops of megachocolate ice cream, you're not a pathetic, undisciplined, weak-willed glutton. You're merely cooperating with the brain-chemical imperative as nature intended. You can't help it. The chemicals made you do it.

"There is no magical stuff inside of you called willpower that should somehow override nature," according to James C. Rosen, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Vermont, a self-proclaimed rigorous cyclist. "It's a metaphor that most chronically overweight dieters buy into."

Now, a more enlightened and grateful population has been liberated from the repressive grip of our former guilt for failing to triumph over the demon appetite. It's not our fault. We're off the hook, so let's give ourselves a cookie.

Again, what a relief to be unburdened of responsibility for knowing when to say when and then doing something about it.

I must confess to some regret over the course of those years in struggling to understand and practice the hard discipline of mind over matter, the will to win, the will to live. All along - whether in mustering some untapped strength to scale a mountain, or subdue a larger, faster opponent in a football game, or help repel a Viet Cong sapper attack under the cover of darkness - I accepted the mythical delusion that prevailing over long odds was somehow related to the will to prevail.

It was a matter of choice - hard choice sometimes, and even some luck, but requiring more determination and self-denial than was comfortable or even desirable. Choosing to submit - or quit - was always an option, but the indignity, or worse, that accompanied that choice provided its own inherent deterrent.

Before the discovery of predestinating brain chemicals and genetic determinism, my misguided mentors insisted that everyone could, with effort and without excuses, develop practiced habits of the heart that would temper the human inclination to indulge temptation.

All would fail some of the time, some would fail much of the time, but practicing the will to prevail over the lesser angels of their nature was itself a virtue.

Thank goodness the marvels of modern psychology have dispelled the repressive fiction that exercising a mythical will can, or even should, cause people to mend their ways.

So, pass that bag of megachocolate-chip cookies. My chemicals are restless.

SOURCE: The Roanoke Times

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