Delayed gratification – what does this actually mean?
There is a famous ‘marshmallow experiment’ conducted by Stanford University in the late 1960s and 70s. In summary, children were offered one marshmallow and told that if they waited (and didn’t eat it within a period of 15mins) then they would be given a second marshmallow. The test showed that children who are able to wait (delay gratification), had better life outcomes in the future: better educational grades, healthier body mass index (BMI) and other life indicators. A video of a version of this study is below:
I now believe that delaying gratification is a good thing; it allows you to develop real self-control, avoid impulsive decisions you may later regret, and avoids you rushing into something which doesn’t tick all your boxes just to have something e.g. relationships with toxic people. The Stanford experiment also mentions that whether or not a child/someone will wait for the later reward, relies on trust and certainty that the reward is coming. It makes sense…I will be less likely to ‘wait’ for true love or work hard to make my business succeed, if I am not certain that it will happen. But this doesn’t mean I can’t work hard to believe in the positive outcome that I want. Thought turns into belief which manifests into positive outcome through action.
I’ve had to learn this lesson so many times that I didn’t even realise what was happening until it was over. One major area for growth for me is relationships. I tend to meet someone and have an intense month in the honeymoon period, I want what I want and I want it now (!) is the mantra. I am sure an ex or two can testify to their frustration that I either rushed things, got too intense too soon, or made demands that the relationship wasn’t mature enough, or ready enough to go through. Such is the pitfall of instant gratification. I ended up attracting toxic people, because they were either as stuck in unhealthy patterns of relating to others like I was, or they fed off of the intensity and attention I gave. I wasn’t patient enough to wait for what I truly wanted: a healthy and loving relationship. And whilst I was convinced what I was doing was going after what I wanted, I was actually depriving myself of a better reward down the line. There really are no short-cuts to getting what you deserve. You have to be in it for the long haul.
If I am completely honest, self-control and the art of mastering delayed gratification isn’t just compartmentalised to one area of your life.
Impatience, a need for instant gratification and impulsive behaviours seep into other areas of your life. It turns what is a habit, into a character flaw.
I’ve done some serious reading on this subject, sat down and thoroughly examined all the areas of my life where I exhibit impatient tendencies. I noticed: I get bored easily with jobs/projects and instead of waiting out the uncomfortable phase, I am quick to jump ship and seek out the next thrill. Yet, looking back, if I had waited, taken my time to sit in the discomfort and waited for the phase to pass, I might have come through the other side and received a greater reward for my efforts. Perhaps there wouldn’t have been a reward at the end of it and jumping ship was the right idea. The fact still stands that I will never know! I didn’t give myself a chance to wait and it’s important that we do.
If I analyse the root of this problem with Africans specifically, I would surmise that it stems from a lack of choice from childhood to adulthood. We did what we were told to do by our elders. It was what I will term forced delayed gratification. Our close-knit community put pressure on us to conform to cultural standards and to behave ourselves. You are told when to eat and what to eat. There is limited (if zero) autonomy and choice. We grow up without a strong sense of being individuals separate from our parents/families and every decision we make going forwards needs input from family/friends. When we do grow up and can start to make decisions, because we have been formally deprived of selective delayed gratification, we have not developed the mental strength and psychological resolve it takes to simply wait for the good things in life. We want them and we want them now! So we fall into the trap of eating all the sweets as soon as we have them, we don’t save money for the future, we buy the fancy cars, expensive clothes. We gorge on the delicious high calorie foods, self-control lost.
We can’t continue to live this way. We went through a period of forced delayed gratification that has us now jumping towards everything that seems exciting, wanting it here and now, instant gratification. If you are going to change your habits and your lifestyle, if you want the good things in life and to be truly happy and healthy, you need to recognise the areas in your life where you tend to be impulsive, reckless and impatient. Then work on changing this bit by bit. It will be worth it once you develop your self-control and feel more empowered by it.