A book about self control sounds pretty worthy, the kind of thing you might need a fair degree of self control to get round to reading in fact. But don’t yield to the temptation to click onto something more exciting just yet – Daniel Akst’s book is a whole lot more fun than you might imagine.
Here’s the thing: the last sixty years or so have been years of expansion of opportunity, or at least they were until the financial crisis destabilised the trend somewhat. The majority of us in the Western world had plenty to eat, the money to buy the things we wanted, and ever fewer authority figures dictating our life choices. It’s been an age of freedom and plenty. But in this age of abundance, the old problems of scarcity have gradually been eclipsed by the problems of excess.
In centuries past, only kings could sleep with whoever they wanted, borrow without any particular plan to repay, and eat infinite quantities of meat and sugar. Those temptations have been democratized. So we eat too much, take on too much debt, and seem locked in patterns of behaviour that we know aren’t good for us.
That doesn’t make that munificence a bad thing – “no moral panic here people” says Akst. “The problems of freedom and affluence – of managing desire in a landscape rich with temptation – are just the kind all of us should want to have.”
Perhaps ‘managing desire’ sounds like a First World Problem, but it’s serious. Akst points out that half of all US deaths are related to problems of excess, an annual death toll greater than the US casualties in World War Two. There are all kinds of social problems, and unsustainable long term trends around debt, spending and the environment. “Given the evidence that human activity is causing potentially catastrophic climate change,” says Akst, “the fate of the earth may depend on our collective ability to resist our impulses and give up some ease, some wealth, and some pleasure in exchange for the more enduring satisfaction of a hospitable and harmoniously functioning planet.”
Unfortunately, self control is a naughty word in today’s culture. The ads constantly encourage us to do the opposite – to give in, to surrender, to treat ourselves. It’s high time we re-considered what self control really is, and that’s something that We have met the enemy does rather well.
For example, self control is not about self-denial, but about freedom. It’s about our ability to follow through on our desires and intentions. The majority of people who are overweight don’t want to be, but our short term desires consistently overrule our higher desire for a healthier weight. More self control would get us what we truly want. Self control really doesn’t deserve the bad press.
Psychologists have studied self control in some detail. It’s a strong indicator for generally doing better in life. Children who show good self control do better in school, get better jobs, are less likely to get divorced or commit crime. We’d all be better off if we could encourage more of it.
How is that done? Akst is a realist, so he’s a believer in ‘pre-commitment’. That’s when you lock yourself into your best intentions, rather than depending on your own self-will when the time comes. Odysseus tying himself to the mast in order to sail past the singing sirens is his favourite example. Samuel Taylor Coleridge hiring personal bouncers to keep him out of his local opium den is mine. A more modern example is the drug Antabuse, which makes alcoholics very ill if they drink any alcohol, or the website StickK, where you can basically blackmail yourself into achieving your goals.
Other advice includes enlisting friends and family to support you. By announcing your goals to people, you can re-introduce the potential for public shame that used to help us moderate our behaviour. Knowing your weak points is another tactic, or building in delay time – like the woman who kept her credit card frozen in a block of ice in the freezer so she couldn’t possibly use it on impulse.
The book explores all of this, and much more besides, in a series of essays rather than one long argument, so it’s perfect for dipping in and out of. It looks at self control and Freud, Jewish wisdom, Greek mythology, marketing, genetics, economics, and his own vice of choice, procrastination. It’s diverse, curious, counter-cultural and surprisingly entertaining.