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How Delayed Gratification Can Help Improve Your Life

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According to a study from Princeton University, it is possible to distinguish two areas in our brain: one associated with emotions and the other with reasoning. The emotional part strives for instant gratification since it cannot have a complex vision of the future, while the rational part can imagine what is to happen, so it favors delayed gratification instead.

Nowadays, the need for pleasure we seek has reached its peak. Our emotional part of the brain has taken over the rational part, and we yearn for instant gratification from everything. We demand the world, and we expect it now, so the ability to reach a goal has lost its original power.

The problem is we forgot about the importance of delayed gratification, and we gave up on the feeling of anticipation that enhances our emotions. Thanks to technology, everything became more accessible, so we prefer high bumps of happiness instead of pursuing its persistence.

The Internet brought the speed of light to our ordinary lives. We have a one-click away availability for anything we wish, so it’s easy to fall into temptations. We have any product delivered to our home, and we could eat from different cuisine around the world every evening.

The world is at a two-clicks distance, but this availability didn’t increase our productivity, it enhanced our laziness.

The joy of instant gratification is training us to live consistent periods of little happiness, so we can procrastinate every day. We live in a permanent state of hedonic adaptation, which became unhealthy.

Here comes the need to rediscover the power of delayed gratification. So how can delayed gratification help improve your life?

The Marshmallow Experiment

Marhsmallow experiment for How Delayed Gratification Can Help Improve Your Life
Photo by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash

The ability to delay gratification can have many positive outcomes such as academic success, physical and psychological health, or even improved social skills.

A significant amount of literature links those topics, but it all started with the Marshmallow Experiment: a study led by Walter Mischel in 1972.

This experiment was simple, still powerful. Mischel tested hundreds of children from 4 to 5 years old by offering them a simple deal. A researcher brought them in a room with a marshmallow on the table and told them he needed to leave for about 15 minutes. If the child wouldn’t have eaten the marshmallow, then he would have received a second one, but that wouldn’t happen if he ate the first one.

The first results of the experiment were not relevant since most of the children ate the first marshmallow, as expected. Still, the study gained importance years later.

The researchers tracked the children in their growth and discovered how those who applied delayed gratification experienced many benefits. In particular: higher SAT scores, lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, a better response to stress, and better social skills.

Other experiments

A latter experiment, led by the University of Rochester, proved how experiences influence delayed gratification.

This time the researchers divided the children into two groups, each of them exposed to distinct realities. They gave them stickers and colors and promised to come back with more, but for one group they fulfilled the promises, while for the other they didn’t.

The children from the first group learned the worth of waiting for gratification and applied this principle in their lives, while those of the second group had a lower percentage of success and were more inclined to instant gratification.

This showed how delayed gratification is trainable since it depends on experiences, and thus receptive to positive repetitions.

Think about the marshmallow experiment now and ask yourself: how many times did you choose instant over delayed gratification? And how many times was it worth?

Choosing the path of discipline

The ability to discipline yourself to delay gratification in the short term to enjoy greater rewards in the long term is the indispensable prerequisite for success.

Brian Tracy

The ability to delay gratification relates to other similar skills such as patience, self-control, willpower, and emotional intelligence. Still, these abilities are part of a bigger and stronger discipline: self-regulation.

If you are used to instant results, regulating your own needs will be a harsh challenge. You can try to do it relentlessly, but if you want to succeed, you need to understand how discipline works so you can build a plan and act on it.

Hence, discipline is a goal you can reach over two paths: pleasure withholding and unpleasant habits.

The Pleasure Withholding’s Path

The first step to improve your resistance to instant gratification comprises keeping yourself from pleasure.

You need to use the rational part of your brain and persuade yourself to renounce easy gratification in the present, so you can have greater satisfaction later. And since you delayed the pleasure of the marshmallow for the moment, reward your fatigue with twice the price.

However, don’t underestimate the importance of the reward, especially at the beginning. If you break your promises, it will be harder to convince yourself of their truthfulness later. The emotional part of your brain will draw you back to instant rewards, and you will need to start over.

Start with small practices and then move towards more tough ones. You could try fasting and rewarding yourself with a bigger lunch after the fasting period, for example. Or you could try taking cold showers to see how good is a hot shower after a few days.

There are infinite withholding practices. Choose one, do it consistently, and after a few days check if your brain is less used to instant gratification.

The Unpleasant Habits’ Path

Delayed gratification can help improve your life, but it has plenty in common with unpleasant.

Nobody enjoys waiting or working hard without an instant reward or feedback. Still, it may be the only way to achieve significant results.

Success is a marathon, so learn to work with a future gain in your mind. Write constantly even if our blog gets 10 visits per day, meditate each morning even if you don’t see any changes, and run 3 times a week even if you aren’t losing weight.

Do you know what makes people successful? Healthy habits are performed every day.

Tips to Adopt

Here are a few tips on how to adopt them yourself.

  • Make the habit so simple you can’t say no. Let it involve the smallest effort, so it doesn’t considerably change your life in the beginning.
  • Use the 5 Seconds Rule. Start as soon as possible with the practice and act before your mind makes excuses.
  • Improve your habit by 1% every day. Once you established a habit, improve it slowly, without overdoing.
  • Convince yourself of its worth. Keep in mind the marshmallow experiment and use it to motivate yourself to stick on a habit.

These tricks will ease your stickiness to a habit, but you will still need hard work and sacrifice. Success requires healthy habits, but habits are hard to master.

How delayed gratification can help improve your life

Many benefits come from delayed gratification.

First, the more you delay pleasure, the more you enhance it with expectations and mysticism.

The impression of missing something, or someone, tricks your mind into giving it more value, and thus magnifies the emotion burst you get from achieving your desires.

Infographic on delayed vs instant gratification for How Delayed Gratification Can Help Improve Your Life
Instant vs Delayed Gratification

The same principle applies to hard working. A compliment received for a one-hour project is meaningless compared to a compliment received for a one-week project. So is the sensation of completeness you get from it.

The more effort you put into doing something, the bigger will be the emotional burst it generates, and the more it will last.

Delayed gratification is easy to pursue. It doesn’t take any time, it’s free, and it teaches you to enjoy the minor things of life.

Moreover, it increases your willpower and your resistance to addictions. Delaying a guilty pleasure will improve your resistance until your grit is strong enough you can control it yourself.

Finally, you can use delayed gratification to enhance your motivation at work. When I write an article, for example, I strive to start in the morning, even if those are my most productive hours. To improve my motivation, I start the article in the evening, making researches and taking notes. Then, when I sense the urgency of writing, I stop.

My motivation remains boosted throughout the night, and in the morning I can’t wait to write. So delayed gratification helps my writing, but you could use it for any kind of productive work you wish.

The Dam of Pleasure

Dam image for How Delayed Gratification Can Help Improve Your Life
The Dam of Pleasure

If you want to use well your rational part of the brain, and apply delayed gratification, think about your ability to delay gratification as a dam. If you keep it open, the river of minor pleasures passes in any instant under your gates, and you get used to it. But if you close it, the river will make the level of water grow, until it becomes a magnificent full dam. If you open then your gates, the pressure of the water will astonish you, as the pleasure you will get from the delay.

This is how delayed gratification can help improve your life.


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Article first published on The Ascent, a Medium publication.

Cover photo by Jake Melara on Unsplash.

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