HEALTHY LIVING
07/28/2011 08:22 am ET | Updated Sep 27, 2011

Why Clenching Your Fist Makes You Feel Better

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Forget the hair gel, fist pumping may be part of the reason the "Jersey Shore" cast members are so happy. Admittedly, they save their fist pumping for the dance floor, but maybe we should consider doing fist pumping exercises at the office.

While you may think that clenching your fists and gritting your teeth is a sign that you are about to lose control; in fact, those classic muscle-tensing moves may actually be helping you keep your cool. Really. According to new research, our angry fists of frustration may actually help us find our inner zen.

After clenching their muscles, participants in a recent study were more easily able to accept physical pain (in this case drinking a bad-tasting tonic water) for long-term gain (supposedly the tonic water had health benefits). Not a surprising example if you think back to your childhood. You had to drink the yucky cough medicine when you were sick, and like most kids you probably made the “Ewww-gross” face that involves tensing facial muscles before the medicinal syrup even touched your tongue. That icky face you made probably helped the medicine go down.

The study gets more fascinating. What if we told you that clenching your fists when hearing news of a major national disaster might make you more charitable? That’s right, the participants that clenched their fists in anger when hearing about a tragedy, in turn gave more money to the cause.

How is it possible that physically acting “angry” makes us, well, better people? The researchers suspect that when we are faced with a major problem we may naturally clench our fists. This physical manifestation of our inner emotions may ground us and allow us to pull from our inner strength. We literally “grit” our teeth through the bad times for a reason, because by clenching our muscles, we’re physically summoning our willpower.

Who knew? Fist pumping may actually make us better people.

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ORIGINAL RESEARCH

Firm Muscles Associated With Strong Willpower

Summary


It is a common finding that when people try to strengthen their mental resolve or try to resist a temptation they may clench their fists, grit their teeth or scrunch their muscles. Researchers tried to explore the fact that firmed muscles that usually result from trying to recruit willpower also firm willpower, using an array of experiments. This might “help one grasp long-range thoughts, and, consequently, help one engage more effectively in self-control.” The results from across the five studies showed that simply firming one’s muscles can firm one’s resolve and facilitate self control.

Introduction


Over the past century, there have been studies that have tried to uncover ways to help people overcome immediate temptations and focus on accomplishing what is good for them in the long term. At times, people indulge in simple firming of the muscle, such as gritting their teeth or clenching their fists. These gestures and movements prepare them to take the right decisions when in a dilemma. However, there have been no concrete studies to show that this firming of muscles is linked to firming of willpower. This study explored the link so as to help people make better choices using simple muscle-firming techniques.

Methodology


Five different experiments asked participants to use simple muscle-firming techniques like bunching up the fist, extending the fingers, contracting the calf muscles and stiffening the biceps.


The experiments involved 54, 47, 91, 66 and 98 undergraduate students in the five experiments respectively.


The self-control tasks given to the participants were of two types. The first group of experiments required accepting pain in return for future gain (e.g., consuming a bad-tasting but healthy tonic); whereas, the second group of experiments demanded forgoing instantaneous pleasure for potential gain (e.g., choosing a healthy apple over a chocolate bar).

Results

Results from the first experiment showed that participants who exerted self control by firming muscles to face a disturbing piece of news were more charitable with their money for the cause.


Two other experiments showed that self-control depends on the actual willpower people summoned when engaged in self-control and that muscle firming augments willpower.


Participants were also able to resist momentary pleasures of immediate temptations in favor of long-term goals.


The last experiment showed that when people firm their muscles prior to exerting self-control, subsequent self-control efforts are impaired, presumably because the summoned willpower is exhausted and wasted.

Next steps


In this study, the participants were unaware that their muscle-firming action was in any way related to self-control. Researchers plan to conduct future, larger studies, where the participants would be aware of utilizing their muscle power to exert self-control. Researchers also plan to conduct a varied range of experiments to explore the workings of self-control and possible factors that influence it in positive or negative ways.

Conclusion


This study explored the effects of firm muscles on willpower and self-control, and found a positive connection between the two, using five different experiments. Most people face the dilemma of choosing what is pleasant over what is good for them in the long term. When caught in such a tussle, they often unknowingly apply muscle-firming techniques such as clenching fists, gritting teeth or scrunching up muscles to fight a temptation or to overcome an immediate unpleasantness. Once larger studies prove the concept right, these methods of muscle firming may be consciously used to help people make the right choices in trying situations.

For More Information:


From Firm Muscles to Firm Willpower


Publication Journal: Journal of Consumer Research, April 2011
By Iris W. Hung; Aparna A. Labroo; National University of Singapore and the University of Chicago, Illinois