The Unexpected Benefits of Self-Sacrifice

Having been born and raised in south Louisiana, I’m no stranger to the raucous season of Mardi Gras, in which flamboyant costumes and excessive alcohol consumption reign supreme. What many people often forget about Carnival, however, is that for many individuals, this holiday serves as the “last hoorah” of sensual surfeit before a period of directed abstinence known as Lent. In many Western denominations of Christianity, this season of self-denial begins on Ash Wednesday (the day immediately following Fat Tuesday), and ends on Holy Saturday. (Incidentally, I’ve observed many non-religious people participating, as well.) The modern practice of Lent generally entails giving up an indulgent behavior or vice, from a daily soda habit to an obsession with tabloid magazines. Spiritual motives aside, neuroscience shows that these periods of concentrated asceticism can create lasting benefits for the practitioner.

A study conducted by Drs. J. Quoidbach and E.W. Dunn involved asking groups of people “to eat a piece of chocolate during two lab sessions, held one week apart. During the intervening week, [they were randomly assigned] to abstain from chocolate or to eat as much of it as possible, while a control group received no special instructions related to their chocolate consumption.” After the week was over, the researchers found that those “who had temporarily given up chocolate savored it significantly more and experienced more positive moods after eating it, compared to those in either of the other two conditions.” In essence, the repetition or overabundance of something pleasurable can reduce our ability to savor and enjoy it. This notion is applicable to Lent or any practice of self-sacrifice: “This slow slide toward disenchantment may be disrupted by temporarily giving up something we like…, defying the typical pattern of hedonic adaptation.”

Three similar studies by the same researchers as the chocolate study reiterated these findings. They demonstrated that when an individual is very well-travelled – or even when they simply feel well-traveled – this “undermine[s] the proclivity to savor visits to enjoyable, but unextraordinary destinations…” Changing one’s perception to reflect that perhaps their experiences have been more limited than plentiful may actually be advantageous. The researchers note, “Exercises and activities aimed at decreasing feelings of abundance could help people maintain their capacity to savor small pleasures even after experiencing the best life has to offer—thereby allowing them to have their cake and savor it too.”

Not only can self-sacrifice lead to greater happiness, it can also strengthen one’s “willpower muscle” in the long term. Numerous studies have demonstrated that when an individual exercises self-restraint or self-control in one area, their ability to do so in all capacities is increased. For instance, Dr. Roy Baumeister “conducted experiments in which subjects were given uncomfortable tasks to perform in a lab…They were then sent home and given a random rule to observe for two weeks… After that period was over, they returned to the lab. Those subjects who had been assigned a rule and had followed it did better on their [uncomfortable tasks] when they tried them again than a control group that had been given not such homework. The two weeks of practicing resolve seemed to have generalized itself to other situations.”

Whether you commit to a form of self-sacrifice for Lent, Ramadan, Yom Kippur, or just because the time is right, the benefits are clear. In order to cultivate greater happiness and more willpower overall, the answer may lie in giving up those chocolate bars.

-By Betty Vine


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