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How does mindfulness improve self-control?

written by Genevieve Douglass 19 August 2013

Genevieve Douglass, MAPP '10, is a positive psychology coach living in New York City. She considers her work to be helping individuals find their authentic selves. Read more on her web site. Full bio.

Her articles are here and here (with Shannon Polly).

In a 2012 Swiss study, researchers Friese, Messner, and Shaffner tested whether a brief period of meditation would lessen the depletion effects of self-control that have been described by Roy Baumeister. Their subject pool was from a group of people taking a three-day introductory meditation seminar. In this training, participants learned to become more aware of the subtleties of their breath and sensations of their body and to notice non-judgmentally what felt comfortable or uncomfortable in their lives.

The researchers approached participants at the end of their 2nd day at the seminar and asked the experimental group to perform an emotional regulation task, then to meditate for five minutes. Then the participants performed a second attentional-control task, meant to tax self-control resources. The meditators did not show self-control depletion effects on the second task compared to a non-meditating group. All participants had attended the seminar.

This is the first study I’ve seen that actually tests the effects of a brief period of meditation on self-control ability. Previous work has shown that trait mindfulness is associated with better self-control. This study was looking at the immediate effects of state mindfulness.

Mindful Self-Regulation versus Self-Control

In a 2007 paper, Brown and colleagues describe their concept of mindfulness as it differs from self-control. They give an amusing example to illustrate their point:

“A student with a large pimple on her nose comes into a professor’s of?ce, and his attention is likely to be drawn to her prominent blemish. In a self-controlled mode of regulating his attention, thoughts, emotions, and verbal behavior, he will invoke one or more preconceived, socially-prescribed standards of conduct that may dictate avoidance of this sight so that he can properly focus on the conversation. He may redirect his attention, perhaps to the student’s eyes, or even to a spot on the wall above her head, with this goal in mind, and will periodically self-assess to see how well he is meeting his standard(s) of behavior.”

In contrast, they describe a possible mindful self-regulation as allowing the professor to non-judgmentally attend to the student. Since his attentional capacity is not compromised by focusing on whether he is adhering to a particular standard of conduct, he can choose his behavior rather than being driven by what he feels he ought to do.

How does mindfulness work?

According to a 2011 Buddhist model of mindfulness designed by Grabovich and colleagues in British Columbia, mindfulness breaks our usual perceptive cycle. Normally, we become briefly aware of a sensation, either something that comes into our senses or a cognition in the mind. This happens so fast that we have dozens of sensations in the space of a second. With this awareness comes a “feeling tone” of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Pleasant feelings give rise to desire, while unpleasant ones create aversion. There is a distinction here: the desire or aversion is not in response to the object itself, but in response to the feeling tone that it engenders.

Thoughts that occur in response to a desire or an aversion carry their own feeling tone, and more thoughts occur in response to those. Because the awareness of the sensations is so fleeting, it’s easy for this mental proliferation to become habitual. According to the model, it is this habitual attachment and aversion that causes suffering.

When we’re regulating, we’re trying to achieve a goal of some sort, either a desire for something to come about (desire), or a desire for something not to come about (aversion). Could it be that when we are experiencing self-control depletion, we are experiencing some form of suffering?

In this model, mindfulness is defined as a moment-by-moment observing of impermanence, suffering, and not-self. In other words, mindfulness involves noticing the impermanence of sensations and feeling tones, the suffering caused by habitual desire or aversion, and the idea that none of the sensations, desires, or aversions create the self. Thus observing can break the chain of thought, the habit, and eventually, the suffering.

The acceptance or non-judgment that is brought to the practice reduces the negative thoughts that might otherwise make the practice itself a source of aversion. Additionally, the authors state, “acceptance helps relax the attention and allows rapid, discrete sensations to be more easily noticed and followed during mindfulness practice.” Basically, this harkens back to Barbara Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory that positive emotion relates to expansive use of attention, while negative emotions narrow attention. Acceptance allows for ease of noticing.

How does this apply?

While this makes some sense to me, what really brought it home was revamping my understanding of what mindfulness really is. The most helpful explanation I’ve come across is Sharon Salzberg’s concept that mindfulness is noticing. This small adjustment in definition allowed me to more easily see why meditation is useful.

To illustrate what I mean, let’s take the example practice that begins by focusing on the breath. When a thought comes into mind, you notice it, and then bring your attention back to the breath. Mindfulness is in the noticing. Maybe I notice that I like a certain type of breath pattern better than another. This is an attachment to that type of breath. I might also notice that my breath occurs without my trying, separating my breath from my self (not-self). Mindfulness is not that I can stay focused on a sensation. Instead, when a thought or feeling arises, I notice. The breath itself is a point of concentration, so that when a thought or feeling comes into mind, I’m able notice it.

To apply this to self-control, let’s look at another example. Let’s say I’m trying to eat healthier food, but I am presented with a cookie. The unmistakable smell of homebaked food wafts through the air, and I’m smitten by the perfect sheen of the chocolate morsels, indicating a soft, warm, meltiness. These sensations might not be cognitive, but I have some awareness of them, and they are a trigger, creating the desire to eat the cookie. Mindfully, I notice these desires, which immediately removes me from them. Now I’m busy noticing instead of desiring.

Basically, instead of thinking and feeling, one is noticing. Meditation is the practice of noticing.

Meditation as a Self Control Exercise?

The study by Friese and colleagues helps answer a long-frustrating question: If self-control is like a muscle that you can fatigue, and if mindfulness is a way of exercising and thus strengthening self-control, then wouldn’t meditation practice cause fatigue and deplete self-control as well?

Based on this study, in which participants had spent all day at a meditation seminar prior to participating, meditation does not cause depletion. It seems like it could actually replenish self-control resources, but I think there’s room for another possibility: It seems to me that this is not because mindfulness helps build the self-control muscle, but it helps avoid using the self-control muscle altogether. The brief mindfulness meditation in the study might have allowed participants to enter a more mindful state, which they could maintain through the second self-control exercise.

So how does mindfulness improve self-control? It doesn’t. Mindfulness is the path to autonomous regulation. I don’t think it necessarily replenishes a self-control juice (otherwise, meditating for longer should increase the amount, right?) but I think it gets us ready to use the noticing skill in other situations.



Baumeister, R.. Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M. & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(5). 1252-1265.

Brown, K. W., Ryan, R. M., & Creswell, J. D. (2007). Addressing fundamental questions about mindfulness. Psychological Inquiry, 18, 272-281.

Friese, M., Messner, C., & Schaffner, Y. (2012). Mindfulness meditation counteracts self-control depletion. Consciousness and Cognition, 21(2), 1016–1022. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2012.01.008

Grabovac, A. D., Lau, M. A., & Willett, B. R. (2011). Mechanisms of Mindfulness: A Buddhist Psychological Model. Mindfulness.

Salzberg, S. (2000). What does it mean to be mindful?. Beliefnet.

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Ego depletion courtesy of Cristiana Gasparotto
Mindful watching courtesy of khalid almasoud
Moment by moment awareness courtesy of h.koppdelaney
Enticing cookies courtesy of rottnapples
Practice makes easier courtesy of S.Su

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tiggy 20 August 2013 - 5:06 am

Genevieve, people use the term mindfulness and meditation interchangeable. Mindfulness if one of the benefits of mediation. Interestingly I haven’t seen any other interventions (except mediation) that increase mindfulness. Have you?

So given all the other benefits associated with meditation why wouldn’t you just meditate?

Genevieve Douglass 21 August 2013 - 3:44 pm

tiggy, thanks for your comment. I think there are a few definitions of mindfulness out there (Kabat-Zinn, Brown and Ryan, Langer off the top of my head), so it is tough to make sense of it all, and I’ve been struggling for a while. What I’ve found most useful is what I attempted to describe in this post, maybe not so successfully. I’m trying to make a distinction between mindfulness and the formal practice of mindfulness (meditation). As Judy mentioned, I’m thinking of mindfulness as “noticing” and more specifically “noticing where your awareness is” — so I’m thinking anytime you notice where you’re awareness is, you’re being mindful. One other place where this kind of noticing is formalized is in cognitive behavioral therapy. I’m not sure I’m making much distinction between mindfulness and metacognition, which has been theorized as part of mindfulness in other attempts to explain how mindfulness works. However, just in my own sitting practice, I find it helpful to consider ‘the noticing’ part the most important part. I think this is really Sharon Salzberg’s idea. I can’t find the original place I heard her talk about this — it may have been in a live session with her. I’ll definitely post it if I come across it again. And to your final question, I’m not sure why you wouldn’t just meditate. I’m hoping my article adds connective clarity about why meditation is useful in actually helping to change behavior, thusly helping to motivate people to meditate.

Evelyn Tribole 21 August 2013 - 12:20 am

Genevieve–great article and helpful explanation on the distinction between mindfulness versus self-control. What’s your twitter handle? (I would like to include it in my tweet linking your article). Take care–Evelyn

Genevieve Douglass 21 August 2013 - 3:47 pm

Hi Evelyn,

I haven’t used twitter in quite a while, but @glogic. 🙂 Thank you for sharing the link!

Judy Krings 21 August 2013 - 5:07 am

GREAT article, Genevieve. Loved your definitions of mindfulness as NOTICING and meditation as practicing noticing. That really hit home for me.

Tiggy, to answer your question, for me, I admit it, I do not always take the time to meditate. But I AM mindful most of the day. I pause and observe and breathe and being to often too emotional one, I let go of a lot!

while mindfulness may be a benefit of meditation, to me, I look at mindfulness as a REMINDER to meditate some days! And for me to exercise as that helps my energy, too.

Thanks for starting my morning off in a happily, meaningfully mindful way.

Genevieve Douglass 21 August 2013 - 3:50 pm

Judy, Thank you so much for your comment. I think you understood the distinction I was trying to make about mindfulness and meditation, and you’ve clarified it much more. Thank you!!

Breon Michel 21 August 2013 - 1:19 pm

Thanks for starting this conversation, Genevieve. To me, there is an important distinction to bring into the conversation. In day to day activities, self control is most commonly infused with “doing” qualities, such as trying, thinking, planning, efforting to get somewhere or achieve something. In mindfulness practice, the emphasis is on being and non-striving. So I tend to disagree with the point about mindfulness not replenishing self reg. I think shifting from doing mode to being mode, which is even lighting up different structures in our brain, is enormously replenishing. And, I think the very qualities we touch and embody during mindfulness meditation allow us to clearly see where we are, what we need, and how to skillfully (and non-forcefully) respond to situations we may be confronting. Even the capacity of noticing and then making the conscious choice to not get sucked into the thought or emotion draws on self reg and thereby strengthens it. Just my two cents!

Genevieve Douglass 21 August 2013 - 6:11 pm

Hi Breon. Your point is an excellent one, and both the idea that mindfulness replenishes self-control reserves and that it works by allowing one to see clearly and more choicefully respond to situations are definitely theories that are held as most probable by the leading researchers in the field. So you are thinking among the greats. I’m definitely going against the grain to suggest that this isn’t the case, and I may be completely wrong. But, I think this new study indicates that meditation may not be a using self-control because the subject pool would probably not have been practicing meditation enough to strengthen their self-control muscle, as it were. They were only 2 days in. It seems to me much more likely that if meditation required self-control resources, they would be fatigued from diving into two days of lengthy meditation all of a sudden. Definitely, a more focused study on this is necessary. I’m just throwing it out there as a possibility that doesn’t seem like it’s really been discussed. I also haven’t seen much distinction in autonomous self-regulation versus self-control outside the work of Ryan and Deci and a few other SDT researchers. (It actually seems similar to what you’re saying about ‘doing’ versus ‘being’ — doing as effortful and involves struggle, whereas you describe being as associated with non-striving.) That’s another point that I feel is immensely important to understanding self-control and resource depletion: You’re probably not depleting if you’re not self-controlling, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t regulating. You can autonomously regulate, with little to no depletion, and I think meditation is more likely training you how to do this. I think the whole concept of building up your self-control muscle might be flawed, and my alternative suggestion is that perhaps you aren’t building up the ability to self-control, but you are instead learning better how to autonomously regulate. I think this aligns with Brown and Ryan’s theories — they suggest that trait mindfulness allows people more time to be choiceful in their actions so that their actions better align with their values, so that they get closer to autonomous regulation. Hopefully, this makes some sense. Feel free to email me offline if you’d like to chat further. Thank you for the comment — I think it gave me an opportunity to try to clarify myself, but I also want to emphasize that your two cents are very valuable and I am looking for a debate, here. Really, thank you for your thoughtful response.

tiggy 22 August 2013 - 4:08 am


People don’t really know why meditation works – they assume its mindfulness.

But what is the important dimension? – is it noticing the emotions or letting them go? My experience of meditation is that unproductive emotions are like “water off a ducks back” – you barely notice them before they slip away. This sort of fits with research that suggests experienced meditators use upward regulation whilst inexperienced use downwards reg.

So perhaps psychologists are too attached to noticing emotions as opposed to just letting them go.

Jeremy McCarthy 22 August 2013 - 5:29 am

Interesting article and great comments Genevieve. I have to admit I’ve been a bit confused about the relationship between meditation and self-control also, and I’m still not sure how it works. It makes sense to me that a beginning meditator would use self-control in their practice while a more experienced meditator might feel their self-control muscles relax during practice. Perhaps 2 days of training is all that is required to have a sufficient facility with meditation to get more benefit than cost from a brief meditation on self-control. There may be a balance between the self-control “cost” of the “noticing” and the self-control “benefit” of non-action (i.e. there is the “noticing” and there is the “just noticing” or the space where nothing else is required.)

Another way to liken this to the “like a muscle” analogy would be to suggest that a 5 minute meditation period is brief enough to act as a “warm-up” to the self-control muscles. In this way, it would be not unlike an athlete being able to perform better after warming up his muscles then one who steps up to the plate cold. But this doesn’t really mesh with other research on ego-depletion that doesn’t show this warm-up effect.

Amanda Horne 24 August 2013 - 12:33 am

Genevieve – I enjoyed reading your article and relating it to practical experience. I particularly liked your words “mindful self-regulation”. Regulation seems to be less harsh than controlling / self-control. In the experience of noticing, I personally don’t experience ‘self-control’, and whatever it is that I’m doing, ‘good’ or ‘bad’ mindful attention is just that: attention. Nothing is good or bad. With regards to meditation, it might take some discipline to make the time to meditate, but in the actual meditation experience there is no need, in my experience, to be invoke self-control.
Thanks again – a thought provoking article.

Jasper 4 September 2013 - 1:19 am

Great post.

For me:
Meditation – something you stop and do.
Mindfulness – something you do while doing other things, like while meditating or brushing your teeth.

Sharon Salzberg talks about noticing aspects of experience in her “Insight Meditation” book and guided meditation audio.

Steve Borgman 9 September 2013 - 12:09 pm

Thanks for a very helpful article. It’s helpful to understand that mindfulness breaks up predisposed patterns of reaction. As a therapist working with adults with Aspergers, I’m sure there are applications that can help here. For example, due to sensory overload or under load (not sure if that’s a term), adults with Aspergers often experience stress on a magnified level, which can in turn trigger meltdowns. Introducing mindfulness may be one strategy to help an adult with Aspergers better cope with stress.


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