Ultimate Test of Delayed Gratification

Friday March 13, 2020 was the day that we were asked to work from home for an unknown length of time. Fast forward, heading into the twelfth week, it seems like getting back to a workplace where people meet each other with a hug, after such a long time apart, is going to be the ultimate test of delayed gratification. The social niceties we took for granted are far in the past as we suspect covid-19 to be lurking everywhere.

The way delayed gratification works should mean that at some point we will receive what what have been patiently waiting for. I am confident that one day social distancing will be over and we can gather freely once again. Yes, that might be years from now. But, I think it will be worth the wait. That is the trade-off or the essence of the sacrifice and reward for impulse control.

The question is why do people struggle with delayed gratification?

The marshmallow experiment first performed by Walter Mischel and colleagues, is a wonderful illustration of impulse control and delayed gratification in children. In case you have never heard of this, here is the summary of the experiment:

  • Pre-school kids were sat down in front of a marshmallow.
  • Instructions: If you don’t eat this marshmallow, when I come back, you can have two.
  • The researchers left the kids alone in the room with the marshmallow for 5 minutes and videotaped the children’s reactions as they tried to decide what to do.

Obviously the correlation to the current covid-19 pandemic waiting game is clear. The public are the children in the experiment and we have to decide whether or not to eat the marshmallow in front of us. For many, waiting for the prize to double seems an impossible task. Rather the far more logical choice is rationalized by the phrase hunters use, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

Thinking about a problem like this gets our minds going to all sorts of places. We run scenarios and consider all the options. Once we decide on a course of action, we double down in support of that side of the argument. This is where the mind can play tricks on us and we might be nudged to do something out of a sense of urgency, or feeling that we don’t want to wait any longer.

Those who have decided to go for doubling the prize are no longer swayed by the choices. They have used the power of imagination to remake what the time in between will look like. This was the same strategy used by the children in the experiment, who waited. They distracted themselves with other activities and thought of the marshmallow as something else, like a fluffy cloud.

Simply deciding to follow a course of action that will take years to complete will be an ultimate test of human will. This takes the idea of delayed gratification to another level. As the media machine continues to churn out negative news, it will be very difficult not to falter. As well, the accuracy of information being reported can be suspect, formatted to look believable and official.

Our brains want to go back to what they know. The effort to review every decision causes significant fatigue. There is a pull to do things the old way, to be normal again. Our routines have to reworked and the new way has to become a habit. This takes time and a lot of internal energy for each person.

From those that have taken decades to build a career or save for the purchase of a new home, there is something to be learned. Every day, these people have to make choices, often sacrifice an immediate gain for a long term reward. The eventual pay off is not certain, but is more likely the longer one sustains daily actions towards the goal. Have we forgotten how to do this?

I suppose the imposition of it all plays a role. Adults don’t like to be told what to do. Maybe this harks back to being a child when most days were filled with compliance based activity. Changing how we behave in society can feel foreign and uncomfortable. The invisible threat can seem innocuous. Our minds nudge us to return to normal as there is no obvious threat to contend with. All of these thoughts can play out in seconds.

We need to decide in every social situation how to behave. As the world begins to open up again and we are coming out of our cocoons, it is time to figure out who we want to be in the future. Will we save or spend it now? Eat the marshmallow or wait for two?

Adulting is hard and delayed gratification of this magnitude is on a whole other level. There is no playbook for how to act in a global pandemic. We are all figuring this out as we go. It might be best to stop looking over our shoulders at what other people are doing  with judgement. Make the right choices in each day for yourself and the people you hold dear.

It may bring some comfort to read the stoics. Looking back, they seemed to have a greater degree of wisdom. (Seneca on Gratitude and What It Means to Be a Generous Human Being.) Maybe that has to do with how long it took to arrive at a conclusion in ancient times. Years of debate, life experience and public discourse on a single topic are far from our modern reality.

There are many ways to go through life, but we all need more powerful strategies at this time. Why Gratitude Is Important During the Coronavirus Pandemic, explores opportunities to live with more peace and happiness. Stepping away from arguments and reaching out to people with gratitude is they way to go.

Deepak Chopra says, “Gratitude opens the door to … the power, the wisdom, the creativity of the universe,” and I believe that to be true. He also says, “The best use of imagination is creativity. The worst use of imagination is anxiety.”

There are many ways to go through life. I have found that connecting with my creativity is the greatest source of comfort and makes me want to spring out of bed in the morning. The surprising connection between gratitude and creativity explores more ways we can chose to be in the world.

Gratitude, like creativity or any other practice we decide to engage in, has long lasting effects. How Gratitude Changes Your Brain explores the circular idea that our brain prompts us to take an action and the effect of that choice changes our brain. Seems a bit hard to understand and maybe a little too much like perpetual motion. But, I choose to trust the process.

I would rather live in a world where we all went for a Simple Daily Habit To Add More Gratitude. It seems like a small ask that won’t have that big of an effect. Too insignificant to even bother with. That might be why we are so conflicted right now. It is an easy choice to delay gratification. The difficulty comes when we have to honor our choices.

“Rule your mind or it will rule you.” – Horace


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