We live in a world where we have so much available to us: air-conditioned homes, the latest in computer technology, hi-tech cars, and conveniences of which our forefathers could only dream. Because of all that is available, we want things now! We have been programmed for instant gratification. It’s important to understand that delaying gratification in the longer term, actually has significant benefits.
The Marshmallow Experiment
Back in the 1960s, the psychology department Stanford University did an interesting experiment. They offered four- and five-year-old children a marshmallow that they could eat immediately. The children were also told that the researcher would leave the room for 15 minutes and upon returning, the child could have a second marshmallow if they didn’t eat the first one. Some kids fidgeted or nibbled at the marshmallow while others succumbed and ate it before the researcher returned. Some were able to delay the immediate gratification of eating the sweet.
The children in the experiment were followed for many years to see how their lives panned out. The children who had waited for the second marshmallow were found to have more net worth, less drug use and less difficulty with weight. It appears from the experiment that delaying gratification has long term benefits.
Our modern Western culture is based upon satisfying the need for instant gratification. The fact that Australia is number one in per capita personal debt is a symptom of this behaviour. When economic times are good, many people will buy high-end items such as luxury cars or the latest computer gadget or spend excessive amounts on travel. While there is nothing wrong with buying nice things, consider the financial impact.
As an example, if someone wants to buy a luxury $100,000 vehicle on credit instead of delaying the purchase until they have the cash, it can be an expensive proposition. There is the cost of interest on a loan and the loss of income resulting from not investing that money. Even paying down one’s mortgage with that money will put the individual on a much better financial footing.
Over the course of one’s working life, spending $100,000 rather than using it wisely can result in a significantly diminished net worth. Individuals who do this with their money are likely to spend excessively in other areas to satisfy their need for gratification. It becomes a form addiction; spending more than one can afford. There are many cases of multimillionaires succumbing to such behaviour and ultimately declaring bankruptcy.
The cost of illicit and legal drugs in Australia is enormous. Monetarily, it is in the tens of billions of dollars. There is also the crime, the car accidents, and the health related issues which weigh heavily on our society. Why is drug use so rampant today?
In some circles, drugs are glorified, and they are readily available to anyone. Some jurisdictions have legalised previously banned substances which make them more available. At the core of using drugs is seeking pleasure.
We remember in the 1960s where some drugs were promoted as enhancing the sexual experience. If that experience cannot stand on its own and needs a chemical boost, then something is wrong. Once we experience repeated pleasure with a particular activity, it is more likely to result in addiction. All drugs can become addictive and so the desire results in negative and opposite reactions: pain, violence or even death. Avoiding this form of gratification has great benefits for not only individuals but society as a whole.
Maintaining an ideal weight
One of the biggest health issues today is obesity. Food and our attitude to food with excessive weight gain is a real problem. Just as the children in the marshmallow experiment were enticed to eat the marshmallow, everyone is tempted by food, especially sweets. Sugar-laced foods give people an instant boost and high. Some even consider sugar to be the most addictive substance and yet, so much of western processed food is laced with sugar.
Sugar consumption begets addiction to the sweet stuff. It works on the pleasure centres of our brain, and we seek instant gratification for that pleasurable experience. Some people can escape succumbing to sugary foods, but for many others increasing the caloric intake results in weight gain. As time goes on, obesity becomes harder to overcome because these individuals are hooked on the behaviour of instant gratification.
What is the solution?
There’s no denying that it may be difficult to overcome instant gratification. It is a problem of a lack of self-control. There is a strategy however that you can employ.
- Stack up as many negatives as you can about succumbing to instant gratification. Make a list of at least 25 drawbacks and if possible do 50. This starts to change your mindset.
- Determine your real values and identify a long-term commitment that has many benefits. In other words, you are setting a goal for the future that has benefits which can only be gained by delaying instant gratification. You are replacing a negative with a positive.
- Ensure that you are accountable to someone. It could be your partner, a coach or a health professional. They can help to keep you on track.
- Write things down so that you can review and update your progress.
Remember, we all have things in our lives for which we seek gratification. If it has a significant impact on the physical, emotional or financial situation in our lives, it is time to make a change.