Jan 24, 2013

Receiving Help From Above

The famous English guitarist and singer-songwriter Eric Clapton was an alcoholic and drug addict. "Drinking was in my thoughts all the time," he writes in his autobiography. All the time... until, that is, he started praying. Here's how he describes the night he finally sank to his knees and started asking for help from above: "I had no notion who I thought I was talking to, I just knew that I had come to the end of my tether. I had nothing left to fight with. Then I remembered what I had heard about surrender, something I thought I could never do, my pride just wouldn't allow it, but I knew that on my own I wasn't going to make it, so I asked for help, and, getting down on my knees, I surrendered." According to Clapton, he's never again even seriously considered taking another drink.

Where did all the willpower to quit (which he didn't have before) all of a sudden come from? Even Clapton can't really explain it, but he now prays for help every morning and night. Telling his story in their book Willpower, it becomes clear that Roy Baumeister and John Tierney aren't quite sure how to explain it either and since neither is particularly religious it's understandable that they have decided to focus on the social component of religious denominations in order to explain how faith benefits people looking for more self-control in their lives. Put simply, being alone sucks:
"Social support is a peculiar force and can operate in two different ways. Plenty of research suggests that being alone in the world is stressful. Loners and lonely people tend to have more of just about every kind of mental and physical illness than people who live in rich social networks." (p. 175)
And religious people tend to have these social networks, usually in connection with the church they regularly attend. But what does the data actually show? Does it really make a difference if you're a religious person or not? Apparently it does:
"Religious people are less likely than others to develop unhealthy habits, like getting drunk, engaging in risky sex, taking illicit drugs, and smoking cigarettes. They're more likely to wear seat belts, visit a dentist, and take vitamins. They have better social support, and their faith helps them cope psychologically with misfortunes." (p. 179)
Ok, I'm assuming that makes sense to most of you. But we're talking about willpower and self-control here. And according to Baumeister and Tierney, that's exactly what religion helps you with, as it "...affects two central mechanisms for self-control: building willpower and improving monitoring." (p. 180) Sounds good, but how does it work? Well, let's start with building willpower. "Religious meditations often involve explicit and effortful regulation of attention." (ibid.) For those of you who pray, you know what they're talking about. Sometimes your mind may start wandering while you're talking to your heavenly Father and it takes effort to direct your thoughts back to where they should be: on your conversation with God. Doing this strengthens your self-control.

As we saw in a previous post, having self-awareness and monitoring yourself is also very helpful in developing more willpower. Once again, religion helps with that, as it "...also improves the monitoring of behavior, another of the central steps to self-control. Religious people tend to feel that someone important is watching them." (p. 181) If you believe in an omniscient God, you know you can't outsmart or fool him in any way. He knows how bad you're failing at controlling your anger, your appetite or other urges you might have. And it's not just him - the other members of your religious community are probably watching you closely as well. So you might as well start working on improving your self-control, if only to please your social network. And if you realize you can't do it on your own, why don't you follow Eric Clapton's example and start praying for help on a daily basis. He might not be able to explain what exactly happens, but he's happy with the results. When asked why he continues doing it, he says: "Because it works, as simple as that."

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