Did you eat the marshmallow or did you abstain?
There’s a well-known psychological experiment that’s often cited in books about delayed gratification. The experiment offered children a choice of eating a marshmallow immediately or waiting and receiving double the reward later. Children were then left alone in a room with a marshmallow on the table to see who could resist temptation. The children were monitored for several years afterwards — the results of the study showed that those who resisted immediate temptation had better life outcomes, for example; better educational scores and lower BMI compared to those that couldn’t wait and woofed down the marshmallow.
The predictive power of this experiment (which happened in 1972) has more recently been put into question. So we can’t be 100% sure whether marshmallow resistance is a useful skill, however, one thing we can be sure of is that generally speaking, we believe that delaying gratification is a good thing.
Defining delayed gratification
If you had to summarise what delayed gratification is, it’s this: resisting the temptation of an immediate reward for a greater reward in the future.
We’ve all heard about the benefits of delayed gratification. The two we’re most familiar with relate to money and health: save money for retirement instead of spending it now (pain) so that when you retire you’re not poor (gain) and don’t eat that delicious cake that’s in front of you (pain) so you stay slim and healthy in the future (gain).
When googling “delayed gratification” it’s not difficult to find supporting information on the benefits — one first-page result goes on to say “delayed gratification is one of the most effective personal traits of successful people”.
The question I have is whether the delayed future reward is guaranteed and are those that don’t delay gratification living a less fulfilling life.
Being present vs living in the future
I have a friend (we all know someone like this) who doesn’t give much thought to the future — he lives 100% for today. Any money he earns he spends on holidays, good food, wine and anything that piques his fancy. Needless to say, there’s always something more appealing to do than exercise, dessert is too delicious to turn down, and who doesn’t want a glass (or three) of wine after finishing work? On the surface, it sounds great. The side effect is that he’s morbidly obese, he smokes, he’s a borderline alcoholic, has a mild gambling addiction, and has dangerously high blood pressure.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s me. I exercise, eat healthily, save money, and limit my drinking. I’m living a life for my future self. While I don’t envy my friend’s health issues, I do envy his carefree existence. He seems unfazed by most things that life throws at him. While there are undeniable benefits to being a planner, there are also drawbacks. It’s possible to think and plan too much and live too much in the future and hardly at all in the present.
I speculate (I’m not a psychologist so take this with a grain of salt) that those who score higher in the neuroticism personality trait are more likely to worry about the future. We (I bucket myself into this category) certainly don’t live a carefree existence — we worry about what would happen if we don’t have enough savings or if this happens or that happens. We’re good at delaying gratification.
Like many things in life, if you gain in one thing, you lose in something else. People who are great at maths are typically terrible at art and vice versa. It’s the same with the sensible cohort who are good at delaying gratification. We save money and worry about the future but possibly at the cost of living life today.
Somewhere in the middle gratification
Going too far with anything can be physically or psychologically unhealthy. The same can be said about politics, as an apolitical bystander, the far right and left appear equally as insane. The middle ground is often where the truth can be found.
I’m prepared to bet that anyone who obsesses about exercise and healthy eating probably isn’t as happy as they could be. It’s almost cult-like what many health influencers are peddling. It’s taking things too far.
A happy balance is probably somewhere between indulgence and abstinence. For example: unless you don’t like the taste, or have religious/medical reasons for not consuming alcohol — I don’t know why you would abstain — it’s a wonderful social lubricant (especially for us reserved Brits) and is the core ingredient for many enjoyable evenings.
The same goes for saving money. I believe there’s a risk of saving too much which becomes a habit that’s hard to break — it’s possible to become too frugal and lose sight of what life/money is about — which ultimately is enjoyment.
Recently I found myself falling into this trap when weighing up whether to go away for a weekend or not, my “delayed gratification-self” was saying: don’t do it and you’ll save a few hundred quid. This “self” only thinks about keeping a healthy balance sheet and delaying gratification instead of living life. I can imagine how this “self” could become too dominant and how living life could be put on hold by creating a permanent delay in gratification.
It’s not often that we reflect on our own mortality but it’s worth doing as dropping dead isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
Rarely a month goes by without me hearing about someone’s health that’s deteriorating. I was thinking recently about the number of people I know who have died prematurely, I counted five (I probably know an average number of people). One from suicide, one murdered, two from accidents, and one health-related. The morbid point is: we’re not immune to having our health or life suddenly cut short. So while planning for the future is important so is living life for today as we don’t know how many tomorrows there will be. And even if we live a long healthy life, that life is surely better with some indulgence thrown in along the way.