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Are millennials actually the masters of self-control?

An image of Nick Arnold
Nick Arnold

We millennials have been called everything under the sun. Lazy, selfish, entitled: we’ve heard it all. But what if that’s not the case?

New attitudes to willpower - and its effect on our self-control - might just prove that instead of being the selfie-obsessed bunch that people think we are, millennials could actually be a much more strategic and intuitive generation.

Recently, this video went viral, in which the author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek, provided his definition of what life is like for a millennial.

“They’ve grown up in a world of instant gratification,” he says in the video. “Everything you want you can get instantaneously.”

That’s why, Sinek argues, 40 per cent of all 20- to 30-somethings have absolutely no strategy for their retirement fund. That’s why we don’t save for material items such as cars and houses, blowing all our cash on experiences, such as travelling, instead.

We’re too distracted, particularly by social media, to drum up the discipline or foresight to plan for the future.

So much for the conventional view. But what if that’s all wrong? Some new approaches to understanding self-control might shed a different light on this.

Think about one annual test of willpower: Lent. Regardless of religion, every year, many of us proclaim that we will valiantly cut out this or that.

But, a couple of weeks in, your no-drinking friends start trickling into work with a hangover, and the no-junk-food ones are slyly gobbling chocolate.

Colleagues reaching for donutsiStock

As the Bible shows (see Genesis), humans tend to be pretty rubbish at resisting temptation.

“Historically, self-control was defined as a preference for ‘larger later’ over ‘smaller immediate’ outcomes,” Kentaro Fujita, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University, tells me. “This is called ‘delayed gratification’.”

An iconic example of this is Walter Mischel’s series of marshmallow experiments in the 1960s.

In this test, children were told that they could either eat one marshmallow now or wait 15 minutes, and receive two marshmallows then.

Most of them caved and ate the first marshmallow (I can empathise).

We’ve all made decisions like these; we’ve sacked off the gym in favour of a lie-in, or ditched the healthy diet because there’s cake on offer.

Kid with a mouthful of marshmellowsiStock

“Willpower is understood as a conscious, effortful damping down of temptation,” Fujita continues. “The classic metaphor involves an angel on one shoulder trying to overpower a devil on the other.”

And the angel rarely wins.

One study has even shown that trying to teach people to resist temptation has only short-term effects, or no effect at all. Another suggests that the people who are best at exercising self-control are in fact the ones who never use 'willpower' at all.

How can that be? They adopt other strategies instead, such as avoidance.

In his 2011 paper, Fujita argues, “We need to decouple this notion of willpower, of suppressing a monster, from the notion of self-control.” Because there are “other ways in which people are actually successful or unsuccessful in their self-control efforts".

“The person who avoids walking past the bakery in the first place will never be tempted,” Fujita says. “Rather than being strong, the people who are really good at self-control are just smart and strategic.”

In other words, the force of willpower - with which we’re meant to be fighting temptation – might actually be an unhelpful way to think about self-control. Or else a myth entirely.

But is there an even better way to approach self-control - one that trumps both willpower and temptation-avoidance?

Woman looking at cakesiStock

This brings us back to millennials. Perhaps, in light of these new ways of thinking about self-control, branding us impatient pleasure-seekers without a spare thought for the future is to misunderstand our mindset entirely.

After all, the world is a more expensive place than it used to be.

People in their 30s now are half as wealthy as those who were in their 30s age a decade ago. Jobs are harder to come by, with unemployment at 12.8% among millennials. Most of us won’t even indulge the impossible dream of buying a house.

So are we too distracted to pursue our long-term goals, or do we just have different goals from our parents’ generation? Fujita argues that changing our goals might actually be the most effective way of achieving ultimate self-control.

"Research suggests that 'approach' goals are more effective than 'avoidance' goals," says Fujita. "Approach goals give us a specific end state to work toward, and that makes it easier to see how close we are getting."

Instead of buying into conventional views on employment, millennials are creating our own, new, work opportunities. We might not be able to buy things to make us happy, but we can find happiness in other experiences.

Maybe we are not the weak-minded generation some might think. Instead, perhaps we’re the ‘smart and strategic’ generation that’s learned to re-evaluate our self-control, and our long-term goals.