What Does Giving Things Up For Lent Do To Our Brains?

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent — the Christian period of abstinence in which believers give up things that pleasurable to them (chocolate, alcohol, complaining about the neighbors) in order to purify themselves for the holy occasion of Good Friday. Even though there are some ideological arguments within Christianity about the real purpose of Lent (is the self-denial about suffering a bit in order to express penance, getting rid of 'sinful' influences, or both?), it's a pretty well-known cultural touchstone. And when it comes to self-denial and giving up pleasures in general, Lent is just one of a collection of religious, philosophical and cultural practices that emphasize the idea. But why do so many of us get so much out of this kind of self-denial?

There's evidence that, though the practice of self-denial itself is often not particularly fun in the moment, engaging in it can increase happiness because it can lead to higher levels of self-control. There's also likely a "self-satisfaction factor" — the Gwyneth-like glow you get from buying a green tea instead of a coffee or hiking instead of sitting at home and rewatching Stranger Things for the fourth time. So what does self-denial actually do to our psychology as humans? Now, as people grumble about their lack of caffeine or cake, is as good a time to discuss it as any.

Acts Of Self-Denial Have A Place In Most Religions


Denying oneself and performing personal sacrifices is a value that shows up throughout human history, in pretty much every culture. In fact, an entire tradition of ancient Greek philosophical thought called Stoicism was based around the idea of asceticism, in which humans should aim to deny themselves idle pleasures desired by their "lower" selves by practicing the exercise of reason.

Christian tradition has also emphasized that self-denial, on both a personal and a societal level, is a way of getting closer to God. Medieval Christianity mandated many days of the calendar year as fast days on which warm-blooded animals shouldn't be eaten, so that believers could commemorate the sacrifice of Jesus and the saints and purify themselves. (In practice, this could get extremely elaborate; the fetuses of lambs and barnacle geese were both seen as "fish" because of various definitional fiddlings, and fish-fast days were re-instituted in English law in 1547 to preserve the ailing fish industry.)

But this kind of abstinence is only scratching the surface when it comes to self-denial-based religious practices. Denying one's self — whether the thing you're giving up is human company or luxurious lifestyles — was a key part of the holy life for nuns and monks, and at the extreme end there were anchorites and anchoresses, who walled themselves into the structures of churches and practiced total abstention from basic human comfort. In Western culture, with its large Judeo-Christian influence, the idea of self-denial retains this sense of moral approval.

The idea of denying yourself pleasures in the name of spirituality is, obviously, not an idea specific to Judeo-Christian thinking. Buddhism, of course, enshrines the idea that our mindless cravings for pleasure are one of the key problems of the human condition; Buddhist thinking mandates that desire is what causes both suffering and the endless rebirth cycle of the soul.

However, Buddhism also mandates that complete asceticism is as unhelpful as complete indulgence, instead proposing a "middle way" of balance. In Japanese Buddhism, certain sects emphasize a tradition of hermetic, self-denying existence (an option for men only, though), involving living apart from human society in the mountains and pursuing a simple life. A variety of self-denial philosophies and actions are also found in Islam, whether it's in Ramadan's dawn-to-dusk fasting or in Sufi Islam, in which adherents can abstain from worldly pleasures so they can attempt to pursue fana, the complete annihilation of the self.

(And none of this even begins to touch on Schopenhauer or other philosophers who focused exclusively on human will to sort out our existence in the world).

Why Practicing Self-Denial Is Still A Big Deal

Frans Snyders/Wikicommons

Though most of the above examples of self-denial are rooted in the distant past, self-denial remains relevant as a cultural value to many, including those who are not particularly religious — because of modern capitalism, which allows us to fulfill desires and produce new ones at a rate unprecedented in human history. We're able to have pleasures coming out of our ears. In this kind of environment, how can we distinguish ourselves and prove our strength of character? By saying no.

Some pursue a "simple life" — one filled with hygge, tiny houses, a lack of Netflix or Facebook, making your own cheese and bicycling to work — for more traditional spiritual reasons. But some also view living simply not as a religious act, but as a show of moral responsibility. It's self-denial as activism; you're resisting the temptations of ease (take-out, keeping up friendships via Facebook, car ownership) for the sake of a more "authentic," more environmentally green, and less literally and figuratively disposable experiences. The green part is rooted in facts, of course — but the moral judgments tied to living a "simple life" come from cultural baggage regarding the meaning of pleasure and what we think it does to our souls.

Why Does Denying Yourself Pleasure Feel So Good?

Library Of Congress

Aside from cultural and moral values that support self-denial, there are other things that indicate its value to human happiness. And it does, in fact, make us happier; in lab experiments, people who have denied themselves a particular pleasurable experience (like eating chocolate) have shown that they savor the forbidden thing more when they're allowed to have it. Self-denial, according to the scientists behind the chocolate study, is an important mechanism because it may derail what's called "hedonic adaptation," in which humans rapidly acclimatize to new pleasures (or pains, as the case may be). Denying ourselves something so that we can savor it means we're also less likely to simply get used to it and stop getting as much pleasure out of it, which is something that happens to human beings all the time — if you need an example, think of how most kids have forgotten about their Christmas presents by February.

There's also scientific evidence that those with more self-control, who can deny themselves things successfully even for short periods of time, are happier. A series of 2014 studies found that having high levels of self-control is linked to high life satisfaction and happiness; the studies also proposed some reasons why. One is that we're all constantly feeling many different kinds of motivations, including frequently conflicting ones (going outside to enjoy a sunny day in nature versus lying on the couch, watching some TV). Higher levels of self-control mean that we're less likely to experience the emotional distress of fighting between different motivations; we'll just be able to pick one and stick to it.

Another suggestion is that people with more self-control tend to be less likely to focus on losses or worries, so they're more likely to go ahead with something without dithering about it or wasting a lot of time. Of course, this only applies to healthy self-control, like putting off a pleasurable shopping trip; mental health disorders that sufferers often tie to concepts of self-control, like eating disorders, are serious health concerns, and do not create any benefits for the sufferer.

In short, a bit of healthy self-denial that leads to better self-control can give us a more satisfied life — and that may be a good enough reason to give up trashy TV for Lent.