Cookie Monster has discovered the power of self-control!

This is funny because the research underlying the value of self-control in children started not with cookies, but with marshmallows.

The Cookie Monster video is yet another example of the recent pendulum swing away from self-indulgence towards self-control. If you’ve been following the trend, you’d see dozens of studies and articles, from health to psychology to education,  proving the importance of self-control, deferral of pleasure, and the limits of what this article in the New York Times calls the “me-generation.”

A consensus is emerging that the boomer generation’s (yes, my generation), emphasis on self-esteem, autonomy, and self-expression missed a few key things along the way. While much can be said about the role of non-conformity and personal freedom  in ushering in the political and cultural revolutions of the 60s and 70s, deferred gratification is not a hallmark of that generation. And this is painfully evident in the numbers of boomers who say they will never be able to retire or who will be in severe financial difficulty as they age.

So Cookie Monster got me thinking about conscientiousness, that unsexy workhorse of personality in the Five Factor Model. Of all the personality traits studied, conscientiousness is turning out to be a key driver for almost every positive outcome in our lives: health, longevity, quality of relationships, work life, school, etc. Conscientiousness is defined as “the state of being thorough, careful, or vigilant; it implies a desire to do a task well.” It’s not particularly flamboyant, fun or dramatic. Conscientiousness is making your bed in the morning, flossing your teeth, being well-organized and tidy. And it’s also the trait Cookie Monster is displaying by thinking before acting (eating), using self-regulation, and considering the long term consequences of our actions, for ourselves, and for others as well.

This trait has powerful effects. Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin crunched through the data of the famous long-term Terman study, a study that tracked 1500 children from childhood to death, to find what led some individuals to stay well and others to fall ill or die before their time. The results of their findings are published in The Longevity Project. Turns out that it was not anti-oxidants, exercise, social networks, happiness, kale, or even pets that accounted for those lived the longest. It turned out that the single biggest predictor of longevity in their study was conscientiousness.

Conscientiousness, at its core, is about having a relationship with consequences, which is to say, a sense of future. And as I wrote here at the beginning of the year, we need to improve our relationship to the future. Our health and the health of our planet and communities depend on us making choices now consistent with the future. With life expectancy  longer than ever before, there will be a whole new phase, 20-30 years of living in one’s elder years. The decisions we make now determine the quality of those extra years.

I’m thinking about all of this as I begin to work on my upcoming seminar on the Gold Coast in Australia in November, Money Dreams: Finding Your Way in the Material World. The future, the influence of the past, and our choices in the present are all hugely influential when it comes to our financial selves. Some of what we’ll be looking at in November include:

  • Making decisions that include the point of view and needs of our future selves and generations to come?
  • How can we nurture our high dreams about the future without jeopardizing momentary needs and security, but also
  • How do we enjoy the present moment in such a way as not to injure future ones?

Hope to see some of you there to ponder these and other questions. Now I’ve waited long enough – time for that cookie!