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When I think of the word “discipline,” smiles certainly don’t come to mind. I see stress, strain, and punishment. I imagine writing my name on the board when I talked out of turn in class. I think about passing on dessert or unrelenting schedules. In short, I associate discipline with misery and enforced rules.

I’m not alone in these unfortunate associations of the word. With our society’s obsession with free will and unlimited choices, discipline can seem old-fashioned, even backward. Cue “you do you,” already.

But not all cultures perceive lack of self-restraint as a good thing. With a new baby, I recently finished the book Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman—who discusses how a core component of French parenting generally focuses on forming a child’s self-discipline. The French believe that this is an imperative foundation, which makes a happy, healthy child and in turn makes a happy, healthy adult.

Turns out, the French are on to something.

“Yes—discipline actually makes people happier,” shares Jill M. Prince, MBA, CHC, certified health coach and stress management consultant. “And science backs this fact up.”

When we’re undisciplined, we’re actually living in a crisis-response mode, which means we overproduce cortisol, the toxic stress hormone. “Each time the stress response system is activated, our bodies stay in fight-or-flight survival mode for two to three hours before the blood reaches a saturation level and the cortisol tap is turned off,” Prince states. Meanwhile, our mind is stressed, and our body’s main systems—such as digestion, immune function, libido, memory, and concentration—can stall or shut off. Needless to say, this on-and-off way of living can be exhausting.

“If our cortisol tap is turned on several times each day, we are most definitely not happy.”

On the other hand, those who do practice self-discipline reap many biochemical rewards. Prince says, “The human body produces a cocktail of happy brain chemicals in response to the various motivators. The four happiness chemicals (neurotransmitters and neurosteroids) are oxytocin (love and trust), endorphin (joy, pain reduction), dopamine (rewards), and serotonin (respect).”

She’s noticed that when people adopt self-discipline, “their lives become simplified. . . . [they] set and accomplish goals more often. When we accomplish goals, we get big doses of happy brain chemicals.”

But it’s a balance.

Kim Castle, a woman’s well-being advocate and founder of Lifelicious, shares that self-discipline can do all kinds of things for our happiness, but we also can’t blindly ignore our intuition and adhere to inflexibility. “I wholeheartedly say that self-discipline can make you happier. It streamlines your attention and helps to clear away chaos and overwhelm,” Castle says. Yet, like all things, we need to be balanced in our approach to discipline. “As a recovered adrenal fatigue, type A exercise addict, it can also run you into the ground by not listening to the needs of your body, especially for women.”

She has found that those who practice a ratio of approximately 30 to 40 percent of mental capacity focused (self-discipline) and the remaining open to flow, joy, and intuition are happiest. “This balance helps us get more things done with ease, and we are happier and healthier,” Castle says.

Karen R. Koenig, MEd, LCSW, is a nonfiction author of six books, a psychotherapist, and a blogger, whose specialty is in eating disorders, agrees with this balanced approach. She shares that “self-discipline is not one skill but a skill set.” This skill set is composed of two aspects: gratification, which is short-term positive feelings, and happiness, long-term positive feelings. The first is an “ability to tolerate frustration and keep persisting toward a goal by overcoming barriers and staying focused.” The second is “the ability to delay gratification to move past hard or uncomfortable work or feelings to reach a goal that’s down the road.”

Happy people have both of these skills—and they use them effectively.

If your life could use a little bit more schedule and a little less free-for-all, Koenig has some practical suggestions: “Start by practicing tolerating frustration—sticking with something difficult for ten minutes, then fifteen, then an hour, then a day, etc.” She says that by learning to delay gratification, we learn how to self-soothe, visualize goals, and enjoy feeling proud for not taking the easy way out.

On a fundamental level, we can become masters of ourselves simply by taking on a different mindset:

“People also need to change their beliefs about self-discipline and stop seeing it as something which takes away fun but rather as something which brings happiness.” In other words, we need to remember that saying no to something in front of us means saying yes to another future goal.

Photo Credit: Alexa Fernando