Could self-control be the key to wellbeing?

Ever wondered why a regular yoga practice or meditation feels so good? Our resident holistic executive Jeremy McCarthy believes it has to do with one very important personality trait: self-control. 

Studying positive psychology I have observed something very interesting: the overlaps between what modern researchers are studying and the teachings of ancient Eastern philosophies.

Take mindfulness. Increasingly, mindfulness is being recognized and validated by the Western scientific community, even though it has been a core facet of Zen and Buddhist philosophies for centuries. Scientists are now studying constructs of compassion, acceptance, kindness, curiosity, morality and spirituality in a way that aligns with, rather than refutes, some of these ancient religious teachings.

When science and religion converge, and Eastern and Western thinking align, it makes me feel that we are getting closer to some universal truths about humanity.

Control yourself

One research domain in particular that has garnered significant attention in positive psychology is “willpower” a.k.a. “self-control” or “self-regulation.”

Self-control is not only the “construct du jour” of modern psychologists, but it also seems to be at the core of many ancient philosophies.  All “eight limbs” of Ashtanga yoga require some element of control from “moral discipline”to “self-restraint” to control of the breath and body.

The Noble eightfold path of Buddhism also seems to be about self-control. Relief from suffering is found through right speech, right action, right livelihood, right thinking, right understanding, right effort, right concentration and right mindfulness.

Thinking it through, meditation and mindfulness training are essentially exercises in self-control. From controlling the focal point of one’s attention (“concentration meditation”), to a controlled awareness of whatever is going on internally or externally at that particular moment (“insight meditation”). Some scientists now believe that many of the benefits of meditation come from this flexing of one’s self-control muscles to maintain these mental states.

Meditation and mindfulness training are essentially exercises in self-control. From controlling the focal point of one’s attention… to a controlled awareness of whatever is going on internally or externally at that particular moment

The connection between self-control & wellbeing

Why is self-control so fundamental to wellbeing? Quite simply, it encompasses our ability to:

  1. Focus our mind on what we want it to focus on, rather than being pulled around by our “monkey minds” (mindfulness).
  2. Do what is best for our future, in the face of more appealing short-term temptations (health).
  3. Do what is best for others, in the face of more selfish, indulgent temptations (morality).

When a psychological construct seems to sit at the intersection between modern science, ancient philosophy, and a growing trend towards health and spiritual practices such as mindfulness, meditation and yoga, I take notice. You should too.


Jeremy McCarthy is the author of the Psychology of Spas & Wellbeing. The original version of this post can be read on his blog, The Psychology of Wellbeing here