How easily can you put off getting something you want? This process—delayed gratification—demonstrates the ability to resist the temptation of immediate gratification in favor of later, longer-term gratification. It's a concept that was central to a Stanford University social science experiment with marshmallows. The aptly named Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, conducted by psychologist Walter Mischel in the late 1960s, showed that our ability to delay immediate gratification is perhaps one of the most important skills we learn. Let's look at the experiment, the troubling trend toward instant gratification, and how you can become more self-disciplined in this area.
The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment
The now-famous experiment tested young children's ability to delay gratification by presenting them with a marshmallow and giving them the choice of eating it immediately or waiting a few minutes before being given a second marshmallow. As each of the 32 children tested sat alone in the observation room with the treat in front of them, some covered their eyes and others sang. They tried everything to take their mind off the marshmallow. Despite this, about half of the children gave in, while the other half were disciplined enough to wait.
For the next three decades, Mischel and his team regularly screened the participants to assess their lives. The research found that those who waited for the second marshmallow tended to have better life outcomes, including better academic performance, improved social skills, and greater well-being. Those who didn't were more likely to struggle with addiction, impulse control, and unhealthy relationships.
The rise of the culture of instant gratification
Social scientists who have studied this experiment extensively for more than 50 years believe that delayed gratification is becoming increasingly rare in American society. They found that children today are less able to delay gratification than they were in the 1990s. Several factors, including the rise of technology and social media, provide instant gratification at your fingertips.
Does that mean we are doomed to continue these trends? t at all, but the road ahead will not be easy. In chapter seven of The Everyday Warrior: A -Hack, Practical Approach to Life, we write: “The modern world has conditioned us with on-demand entertainment, same-day delivery, and credit cards that let us buy what we can not afford. Every time we scroll, eat, play, or shop, we receive a single dose of happiness. These activities cause our brains to release dopamine, the chemical responsible for experiencing joy and pleasure.”
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The work begins
Even though we're fighting off a powerful chemical reaction in our brains, an overwhelming body of research shows that the ability to delay gratification is a skill we can develop. Reversing this trend at the macro level will require enough people changing their behavior. Like all mass movements, it has to start somewhere. Why not with us?
Here are three steps to delaying gratification:
- Rail: Just as you would train your body at the gym to strengthen your muscles and stay healthy, you train your mind to resist daily temptations. Start small and build up to bigger challenges. Maybe you want that new pair of running shoes you see online and it's just a click away. Tell yourself that when you have the extra cash you will buy them, and then do something else until the urge passes. The more often you do this, the easier it becomes.
- Five Minute Rule: When the siren song of instant gratification calls out to you, stop what you're doing and spend five minutes making progress towards your goal. Do you have the urge to scroll endlessly on social media? If your goal is to read more, hang up the phone and pick up a book. Five minutes is so short there's no excuse not to do it, and you'll make progress as you learn to prolong the gratification.
- Practicing Gratitude: When you appreciate what you have, the urge for more subsides. Take stock of the big things in your life and understand that giving in can delay your goals. Wanting a new car is no problem (we all want nice things), but if your long-term goal is buying a home, then there are better options than spending thousands on a down payment at the dealership. Cultivating the right mindset will lessen the urge for instant gratification.
hope for millions
Although originally an experiment to test the effectiveness of rewards in delaying rewards, Mischel's study turned out to be far more consequential. It has been shown that the skills and habits we develop early in life have a lasting impact on us well into adulthood. Subsequent research suggests it's never too late to grow, showing that everyone can make better decisions, achieve their goals, and even increase their well-being. It creates a sense of hope for the millions who would have eaten that first marshmallow if they had been a child in this study.
This article is part of the Men's Journal Everyday Warrior series, which includes advice, key interviews, and tips for living a life of lasting impact, growth, and learning.
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