One Marshmallow or Two? The Lost Art of Delayed Gratification
A desire indulged spontaneously offers little more than momentary, fleeting pleasure – a treat, whose value is briefly inflated before it melts with a small sigh across our memory.
That which has been anticipated, struggled over and procrastinated against carries within it our best efforts in the shape of an earned understanding. The resulting fulfillment is part of us, radiating a deep and lasting satisfaction that the sugary goosebumps of a treat can never hope to imitate.
It is more than 5o years since Walter Mischel’s social experiment with four year olds, in which they could enjoy the instant pleasure of eating a single marshmallow or wait twenty minutes and have two. Each child was left alone to make the choice. It was a battle between desire and self-control; gratification and delay. A seemingly simple tussle and yet the ability to resist impulse is a fundamental emotional skill, the foundation stone of self-control. The children who managed to wait did so by distracting themselves, demonstrating perseverance towards fulfillment of a future goal. Follow up studies showed that those who managed to resist temptation went on to lead happier and more successful lives than those who gave into it.
Our capacity to resist is under threat. Modern life teases, tempts and torments, seducing us into believing that not only must we have the latest phone, the most exotic holiday or the best job, we need to be the first. We expect to achieve with limited effort on our part – because we deserve it, don’t we? We have conformed to – and now embrace – an era of instant gratification and our ability to satiate our constant demands has become the currency by which we value ourselves and judge others, the scale by which we perceive our success. It is the market by which our economy thrives or dives, the treadmill updated from industrial 20th to digital 21st century. Gone are the days when saving up for, or working towards the object of our desire was not only necessary but character building, strengthening resolve, patience and the ability to endure discomfort and disappointment.
Patience is a word out of sync with our modern society. We are so used to our desires being instantly met, that a certain complacency sets in and we struggle to endure the discordant sensations of wanting and lack. Waiting feels an unreasonable request, we expect it not of ourselves but of others; so we complain and demand like a two year old whose needs are not attended to. The planning and anticipation of fulfillment has become the new addiction, the skin deep ‘high’ satisfying little more than a momentary whim before we’re seeking the next fix. Lasting satisfaction comes from striving, embedding our heart and soul within our endeavours, elevating the pleasure and value way beyond the instantaneous.
The art of balancing treat and toil is fast disappearing. Let’s refuse to settle for indulgent underachievement and strive for the infinitely more satisfying depths of delayed gratification.
And then enjoy a treat! One marshmallow or two . . . .