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 that were held a week apart. During the intervening week, participants were asked to either abstain from chocolate or eat as much of it as possible, while a control group received no special instructions for their chocolate consumption. The researchers found that those who has given up chocolate for the week “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. As the researchers stated, “This slow slide toward disenchantment may be disrupted by temporarily giving up something we like.”

Three similar studies by the same researchers and colleagues as the chocolate study reiterated these findings. They demonstrated that when an individual is very well-traveled — or even when they simply feel well-traveled — as their research published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found, “may undermine the proclivity to savor visits to enjoyable but unextraordinary destinations by endowing individuals with a sense of abundance.”

Changing one’s perception to reflect that perhaps their experiences have been more limited than plentiful may actually be advantageous. The researchers note that “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. Dr. Roy Baumeister, as he notes in this book “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,” has given uncomfortable tasks to people in a laboratory setting, such as squeezing a tough exercise hand grip or keeping their hand in ice water.

Then research participants went home after being given a random rule to follow for two weeks, like only using their non-dominant hand or not cursing. When they were tested with the uncomfortable task at the lab again, those people who had been assigned the rule performed better than those who were not given one. It seems even practicing to persevere on a difficult but unrelated task generalized 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.

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