The Science Behind Willpower

A latte in a mug sits on a magazine on a table with a plant and a handbag in front of a window

Dopamine plays a big role in our lives.

Some experts call it “the pathway to pleasure.” Dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter in the brain that’s often associated with happiness and rewards, is the reason why it can be so difficult to give up bad habits, vices, and even serious addictions. 

While dopamine isn’t inherently good or bad, it does make a difference, especially when you’re trying to develop a healthy routine. From diet to time management, boosting willpower to counteract the body’s natural way of reinforcing things that make us happy is the best way to overcome personal challenges big and small, especially if you’re harnessing it in the right way.

“Its double-edged nature must be navigated for you to get what you want,” explains Stanford neuroscientist and podcast host Andrew Humberman

Modern willpower and mindfulness 

Willpower isn’t just avoiding the plate of cookies after dinner or the urge to bite your nails. Although the very definition of willpower is “control exerted to do something or restrain impulses,” it’s often oversimplified by those that preach its usefulness. 

“Willpower is a function of the newer parts of your brain, but addictive behaviors are rooted in the older parts – parts that aren’t amenable to hearing a good pep talk or negative reinforcement. They are habits, deeply ingrained,” explains psychiatrist Jud Brewer, who authored “Unwinding Anxiety.”

In short, dopamine was necessary for our ancestors to stay alive, find food, and seek shelter. In the modern human, the neurotransmitter operates differently, especially in a world full of stimulants and distractions that don’t directly threaten our livelihood.

“To really change habits, you have to make the older parts of the brain work for you,” Brewer continues. “In my work, I’ve found this process has three steps: noticing behavior, investigating why you’re engaging in it, and substituting it with a bigger, better option.”

To harness willpower, it’s important to be mindful. Unlike our ancestors, we have the luxury of slowing down and focusing on our actions and why we’re taking them. Think about the emotions or events that trigger those bad habits or activities that aren’t conducive to being your best self (it doesn’t have to actually be bad, afterall!) 

Getting to know your reactions through their causes (like doom scrolling to avoid a work project, for example) will help you recognize when and how to step in front of what your brain really wants. Research has even shown that dopamine might be more closely related to the anticipation of a reward than the reward itself. 

“What we think it maybe does is something like desire,” Talia N. Lerner, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Northwestern University says of dopamine in the New York Times. “It teaches your brain how to predict your needs and try to align your behaviors with those needs.” 

Mindfulness exercises, such as journaling or meditating, can give you enough space to slow down before you engage in a behavior you’re trying to break. 

Huberman gives another helpful way to think about the brain and its use of dopamine. He says it operates like a casino, keeping you hooked “by giving you intermittent rewards. The prospect of getting a reward the next time — maybe — keeps you coming back again and again.”

“No other reward schedule is more addictive,” he says. 

This explains why people become so enamored with social media. If you post, maybe you’ll get lots of praise and validation and that will make you feel good. Take time to investigate the why and you’ll start to slow down the cycle that feels so difficult to escape.

Exercise willpower like a muscle 

Willpower isn’t built overnight. It takes time and practice, just like any other endeavor. You have to exercise and build up slowly. Cutting out refined sugar from your diet cold turkey, for example, is extremely difficult and could set you up for bigger failure than if you take a few steps at a time. 

Instead, focus on setting smaller goals. This is a marathon not a sprint. 

Common tips to break bad habits — including establishing rewards, setting reminders, and replacing the bad habit with a better one — are also ways to exercise willpower. Remember, that it’s not a magic power that some possess and others don’t! 

A few other ways to help you can make big changes in your daily routine include:

  • Keeping your schedule in check: Building up a routine can feed your willpower big time! Having a set bedtime, workout schedule or even self-care regime will keep you from veering off track, especially when you’re stressed out and bad habits like to creep in. 
  • Tracking progress and celebrating it: Showing yourself that your willpower is working is a good motivator. It’s sort of like retraining your dopamine receptor. Achievement feels good and your brain should want more of it. Just be mindful that your celebration doesn’t set you back.
  • Talking about your journey: Your goals shouldn’t live in a vacuum, and talking about your intentions are important for progress. Plus, having an accountability partner can feed you new ideas on how to overcome challenges and keep going when you need it the most.

Dopamine and willpower aren’t the end all be all of rewiring your brain. There are lots of other factors at play, especially when it comes to serious behaviors like addiction, depression, or other mental health issues. If you’re experiencing something more than a bad habit, it may be a good idea to seek out help. 

In less serious instances, it’s important to remember that every brain is different, so every journey will be too. Breaking habits are hard, even when you have willpower! There isn’t a hack, tip, or trick that will take you all the way to your goal, but you can make strides when you’re tuned in to your mind and body.

In fact, dopamine can be a part of that. 

“Dopamine is the molecule of motivation. With its power on your side, you’re supercharged with the force of life,” Huberman says. 

Written by Kara Mason.

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