Delayed Gratification: The Secret to Long-Term Success?
Most of us are familiar with “instant gratification”, a form of desire or temptation that we’ve all experienced (or will experience) at some point in our lives…
Instant gratification is a positive feeling that results immediately after a given action. On a cellular level it’s a temporary rush of dopamine or serotonin (which feels fabulous for a few minutes, but is usually fleeting!).
For example, most would agree it’s more enjoyable in the moment to watch TV after school instead of doing homework, but if that behavior is left unchecked for too long, we’re really doing ourselves a disservice (I wish I could have shared this wisdom with my high school self!).
When faced with temptations, we often need some guidance and incentives in order to hold out and connect to something called “delayed gratification”. We also need to know that what we’re holding out for is reliable and worth the wait.
Psychologist Walter Mischel ran a famous study called the “Standford Marshmallow Experiment” (1970) in which preschool children were given a choice to eat one marshmallow now, or two later.
This experiment was repeated a bunch of times, and low and behold:
- The kiddos were followed for another 40 years or so, and those who had demonstrated delayed gratification (i.e. waited for the second marshmallow) were found to eventually have higher SAT scores and better health outcomes compared to those who chose to eat the one marshmallow immediately (1).
- Those who had previously experienced unreliable circumstances (“empty promises”) during their early years were more likely to discount the future and give in to the present moment.
- This is rooted in fear of uncertainty: They didn’t believe the better “delayed” outcome (2 marshmallows) was 100% guaranteed to happen. This is not a matter of willpower but rather our ability to trust the people/process.
- Some kids who were LESS focused on the future outcome (2 marshmallows) were more likely to successfully demonstrate patience and delayed gratification compared to those who kept getting reminded of the second marshmallow! This group was given coping techniques such as distraction (closing their eyes).
Fortunately for us, delayed gratification is like a muscle that just needs to be used in order to get stronger. Here are my tips on how to flex your delayed gratification muscles:
- Focusing on a long-term outcome can be daunting. Celebrate the small victories you can get immediately. (For example, how do certain foods make you feel energetically in the moment?)
- Getting a good night’s rest helps to boost our “willpower” energy points, which are finite. If we are spending all those points too early on throughout the day on mundane tasks/chores, we run out and it becomes exponentially more difficult to not get complacent with health habits. –> Speaking from personal experience here!!
- Find gratitude in the day-to-day stuff. Instead of focusing on lack (or an outcome that you don’t yet have but are working towards), what have you accomplished that you’re proud of/grateful for? (Science associates more gratitude with more patience! )
- Explore what you value most at the core level. If you don’t really value your health, chances are it will never make it to the top of your priority list. (Check out my article on Nutrition Conviction if you haven’t already!)
- Trust in the process: detach from the outcome (I know, easier said than done…but practice!) and focus on the gifts/skills that you got from stepping outside of your comfort zone. Maybe your grade for this particular exam won’t be much better as a result of missing a party, but in the process you mastered an ability to say no to peer pressure and learned a new study technique that you can implement for future tests. (I’m all about finding the silver lining!)
I hope this helps you on your journey, whatever that may be. If you found this blog post helpful, please share! 🙂
- Mischel, Walter; Ebbesen, Ebbe B. (1970). “Attention In Delay Of Gratification” (https://pages.ucsd.edu/~nchristenfeld/DoG_Readings_files/Class%203%20-%20Mischel%201972.pdf). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 16 (2): 329–337.
- Dickens, Leah DeSteno, David. (2016). “The grateful are patient: Heightened daily gratitude is associated with attenuated temporal discounting” (https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2016-15319-001). American Psychological Association. 16(4): 421-425.