Can Too Much Self-Control Be a Good Thing?

by Karen Salas, Kenyon ’18

Who’s happier—John, who loves to treat himself as much as possible, or Jane, who rarely gives in to a junk food craving? If you picked John—ERR! A team of researchers recently conducted a series of studies which showed that people who exercise self-control are actually much happier in the long run. Self-control is the ability to resist desires and control impulsive behaviors. Individuals high in trait self-control (TSC) will typically agree with statements like “I am good at resisting temptation.” While the idea of having absolute self-control may seem intimidating and, quite frankly, rather boring, research has shown that TSC is positively related with better performance in work, academics, relationships, and health.

To make better sense of this, let’s define the concept of happiness. Past researchers have said that happiness can be defined in two ways. One type of happiness is called “momentary affect,” and it reflects the natural variation between positive and negative emotions that one can experience throughout any given day. In other words, you felt happy when you ate that extra serving of ice-cream during lunch but felt sad two hours later when your stomach began to hurt. Another kind of happiness is called “life satisfaction,” and it refers to the overall contentment felt when considering one’s entire life.

Hofmann, Luhmann, Fisher, et al., proposed that TSC can predict happiness. One hypothesis was that high self-control would lead to negative momentary affect but positive life satisfaction. This is because people high in TSC typically delay immediate satisfaction in exchange for a long-term achievement (as opposed to the person who decides to watch Netflix instead of studying for an exam). A second hypothesis predicted that self-control could actually improve momentary affect because people high in TSC are better at avoiding stress and guilt. (The person high in self-control would have finished studying before watching Netflix; as such, she is not experiencing stress for her upcoming exam.) Finally, the researchers believed that the impact of TSC on happiness was also related to the management of conflicting goals.

These hypotheses were tested in a series of studies that used self-report measures and experience-sampling methodology. Participants of the first study answered self-report scales that measured their level of TSC, momentary affect, and life satisfaction. The results were then analyzed for possible correlations, which showed that TSC was indeed related to higher life satisfaction. In Study 2, the researchers attempted to refine their previous measurement of momentary affect by taking actual moment-to-moment samples of the participants’ emotional states. This was achieved through a week’s worth of experience sampling, which is a systematic method of acquiring information from participants over a period of time. In this study, participants were repeatedly asked to report on their current emotional state and whether they had recently experienced a desire. They were then asked to provide additional information on the strength and conflicting nature of these desires as well as their momentary affect. Once more, the results of Study 2 revealed that higher TSC was related to feeling more positive emotions. Participants who were high in self-control also showed that they were able to keep stress and anxiety at bay far better than their more impulsive counterparts. This could be because people in high in TSC are good at purposely avoiding tempestuous stimuli and can handle juggling multiple tasks. Because these people experienced less stress, their overall life satisfaction was positively affected.

Researchers dug further into the nature of conflicting goals and their association with TSC. To start, the researchers outlined two different types of goal conflict. The first type included conflicting goals that were equally valued (e.g., work-family conflicts). The second type was referred to as “vice-virtue conflict,” and this included pairs of conflicting goals that could easily be distinguished as the “right” or “wrong” choice (as in, you know you shouldn’t watch another episode of TV because you have homework to do). Thus, TSC appears to be much more prominent in decision-making with the latter type of goal conflict.

In Study 3, participants were asked to name and explain three conflicting goals that they had regularly experienced. In addition to explaining how they managed each conflict, participants also rated the extent, frequency, and value of each goal (“good” vs. “bad”). The results showed that TSC participants experienced less goal conflict, especially those that were of the “vice-virtue” type, than those who scored low in TSC. In addition to efficient goal conflict management, TSC was once again related to positive momentary affect and life satisfaction. However, it is important to keep in mind that the data were treated as correlations. It may be the case that TSC and happiness could actually be causal variables.

What can we make of this? All in all, individuals high in TSC not only appear to be happier overall but also in the moment, despite forgoing what may seem like immediate pleasure. For now, the verdict is that being extremely self-disciplined is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, you might be happier if you were! The next time you decide to give in to your impulse, whether it’s smoking or binge-watching a TV series, maybe you should think twice. You might be putting more than a single afternoon’s worth of happiness at risk.


Hofmann, W., Luhmann, M., Fisher, R. R., Vohs, K. D. and Baumeister, R. F. (2014), Yes, but are they happy? Effects of trait self-control on affective well-being and life satisfaction. Journal of Personality, 82, 265–277. doi: 10.1111/jopy.12050

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