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In Calories and Corsets: A History of Dieting Over Two Thousand Years, Louise Foxcroft writes that Hippocrates understood the importance of self-discipline and a balanced lifestyle: “ ‘Man,’ he wrote, ‘cannot live healthily on food without a certain amount of exercise.’ ” For his heaviest patients, he recommended that they exercise to exhaustion, and then eat while out of breath.

While that is one approach, I believe there is a common trait that you will find in people who are able to preserver with a diet plan, or their chosen way of eating, and successfully lose weight or achieve their health goals. It can be attributed to nothing more complicated than the WILLPOWER they exert!

Now you may say that is being a bit harsh but I consider that any change needs a big dollop of determination along with a well thought out strategy. But no matter how good the strategy, unless the participant is willing to stick it out and develop strength of will as well, most are doomed to fail. However, in saying that, I must confess my willpower is not all that great. To help restrain my impulses to cheat or overeat at times I have schemes a plenty that do not depend on willpower alone! See next week’s Blog for some more hints.

So what exactly is willpower? The term “willpower” was first recorded as being used in the 1820’s, although I’m sure that doggedness and single-mindedness has been around since the Stone Age.  As a dictionary word it was defined in 1858 as “energetic determination” and according to a Google word search, was first recorded being used in a work of literature in the 1924 musical “The Parody Warbler’s Minstrel”. One of the characters, Cator, is telling the tale of his giving up smoking cigars and his compatriot, Dennis, says, “That’s what I call willpower!” where upon Cator retorts “I an’t calling it no willpower. I calls it won’t power!”. Whether your preference is to call it “won’t power” of “willpower”, it is an exceptionally important superpower that needs to be exercised to succeed in making life changes.

Incidentally a synonym of willpower is “determination” and this has been in steady use since the 1800’s and is used 97 times more often than for every use of the word willpower!

The word willpower was little used before 1840 but gradually increased in use up until the 1920’s. At this point its use rapidly increased until 1958 where its trajectory of increased usage suddenly slowed. Coincidentally, that time in history was a dark time, with tensions over Vietnam, Cuba and the building of the Berlin Wall, so perhaps the thought of one’s own willpower in dealing with these matters was not enough for people at the time.

However as a written word, willpower’s use steadily increased once more, interestingly, in tandem with the growth of self help books. According to author Jessica Lamb-Shapiro, “Self-help books completely respond to the time that they are written, and they tend to prey on people’s fears and anxieties about that time”. Bearing this in mind, the dieting and fitness genre of self-help books really took off in the 1970s and the employment of willpower was often used in conjunction with these themes. Maybe giving reason for its increased usage once again?

So much for the history of willpower in literature, what does the word actually mean? Willpower can be defined in a number of ways depending on which dictionary you choose to read. The Merriam-Webster defines it as “the ability to control yourself; strong determination that allows you to do something difficult” while Wordcentral describes it as “strong determination”.  The Cambridge Dictionary defines willpower as “the ability to control your own thoughts and the way in which you behave” while the Oxford’s definition is “Control exerted to do something or restrain impulses”.

Therefore getting what you want takes willpower and is the motivation to exercise will. As a result willpower has a lot to do with self determination, being in control of your choices, and being willing to take a stand and say “NO, I want to change”, when your peers have that extra cream bun!

Willpower is related to desire. If you do not want something very much, then the will to succeed is likely to be weak – and so the need for willpower is not there.  A person with little willpower will give in easily. To succeed in making choices, you must first know what you want. Then you must be determined to get it, even in the face of extreme difficulties. The problem is that some people cannot make changes even when their life depends on it.

Rose was a close friend of mine who was a chronic smoker all her life, with, in the end, COPD. We had a chat over a cuppa a wee while back. Each time we paused in our conversation she would take off her oxygen mask – hack out a cough – and take another puff from her cigarette, all the while saying that this will be her last! She knew that she needed to give up or it would be the death of her. In the end it was. Sadly Rose had no willpower, nor won’t power, when it involved her smoking habit. She passed away 5 days later still vowing to give them up.

In the end there is only one person that can do the job and that is you. Something has to give to get you where you want to be.