The most challenging things we set out to do usually involve willpower.

Recently I have been reading about an Olympic athlete, her struggles and achievements. In thinking about her life I began to wonder about that mysterious thing called willpower. In particular I considered what I knew about willpower (not that much) and how it is affected by grief. Here’s a bit of what I learned. 

Willpower is defined as the ability to control your own thoughts and the way in which you behave. Most people believe that they could live better, healthier and more productive lives if they had more of this quality. In the book Willpower by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, the authors state that (1) our willpower gives us the ability to make constructive choices and (2) our willpower for any given day is a finite commodity. Of course, anything that is finite is also depletable.

Reading about this I thought about what, if anything, we can do about it, especially in the context of grief. 

First, consider that willpower is adversely affected by stress because stress uses up mental energy and willpower requires mental energy. Next, it is obvious that grieving is a stressful event. The brain must face all the challenges that this unwanted change brings. While each person has a unique grief experience, some common themes for those in grief include sorrow, numbness, guilt, anger and deep emotional pain. Grief not only causes stress, it also negatively impacts those aspects of life that would otherwise replenish us, for example:

 happiness                                                       laughter

peace                                                                imagination/ creativity

strength                                                           security

hope                                                                  joy

intimacy                                                          finances

future dreams                                                self perception

purpose                                                           rational thought

In addition to the stress it causes and the avenues for recharging it blocks, the stress of grief lasts longer than you think. When I became a widow, in addition to feeling overwhelmingly sad, I felt constantly anxious. The stressfulness of dealing with everything related to my changed life status took a significant toll on my brain and body for years. Considering all the healing that needs to occur for anyone to move forward after a loved one’s death, the 12 month mark deemed an appropriate period for grief seems clearly inadequate. For me, five years passed before I consistently began to have mostly good days. By then, my widowhood was old news to everyone else, even though it had affected my daily existence throughout that entire period. I wish I had known why everything seemed so hard for so long. If you are grieving or know someone who is, be generous in giving grace. It is easy to forget the existence of deep wounds that you cannot see. Consider that the person’s function (or your own) may still be compromised despite the passage of years.

Since grief can last for a long time, that means that a grieving person’s mental energy is also affected for a long time. In the context of willpower, the lack of available mental energy has a corresponding effect on available willpower. Knowing this can help us make the conscious decision to be aware of our limitations, to plan accordingly and to conserve willpower when possible. 

Research on willpower demonstrates two interesting facts. First, that in exercising willpower we begin to use it up. Biting your tongue or avoiding certain foods you enjoy relies on your given pool of that strength. After a certain point your willpower is all gone. If another situation requiring willpower presents itself, there’s none left. Hence, you choose the course of least resistance and do whatever is easiest in the moment, even if it’s not a good choice in the long run. Second, willpower is impacted by decision making in general. The energy needed to make decisions, even little ones, takes away from the mental reserve required to exercise willpower. Willpower taps into brain resources similar to the way that making decisions does, so if the brain is already depleted by decision fatigue, then there is less remaining to use for willpower.

Research also shows that willpower can be trained and strengthened. There are two simple things you can do that help your brain increase its willpower capacity. The first is regular physical exercise and the second is meditation. Exercise doesn’t just refer to cardio training or gym classes but includes yoga, dance, walking and other forms of movement. Any of these help the body, and thus the brain, manage stress. Merely reducing stress is, by itself, worthwhile but stress reduction will open up mental reserves that can allow for increased willpower. Meditation has been widely studied for its positive effects on focus, working memory, self-control and willpower. Changes in brain structure have been documented after two months of daily, focused meditation practice lasting at least 15 minutes. Free meditation guides are readily available online. 

We can use these facts about willpower to help us make better decisions and to apply  our mental resources more effectively. For instance, if you know you face a day which will test your willpower, you can plan ahead to eliminate little obstacles or decisions that  drain you. For example, decisions such as what clothes to wear, what to make for breakfast, whether to get gas before work or after, can all be planned the night before. You can also choose to tackle your biggest and most important decisions earlier in the day when your brain is fresh. Finally, you can ask for help from someone whose counsel you trust. 

If you cannot avoid decision making or need to use your willpower, remember that grief is stressful, that stress zaps mental resources, and that willpower suffers when one’s mental resources are low. What you would likely tell others is what you ought to tell yourself in the same situation: use what you have learned and do the best you can with what you have and where you are  today. We never get it right all the time, but we can move ahead with intention to, as Samuel Beckett famously said, “fail better” tomorrow.