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Imagine a toddler wailing in line at the grocery store because she wants the candy bar, right now. Maybe her parent gets flustered, shushing her, hoping she’ll pipe down… But a toddler’s gonna do what a toddler’s gonna do. Some parents will give in and buy the candy bar because they don’t truly understand the benefits of delayed gratification.

What happens when that toddler grows up?

The rise of internet and eCommerce puts basically whatever we want at our fingertips. Access to credit cards means people buy more than they can afford because they want something NOW or confuse wants with needs.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want ?

Getting what we want, immediately, ultimately leads to dissatisfaction. Weird, right?

We see something online that we really want, put it in our shopping carts, and check out before we really sit with the decision. Do we have enough money to buy this? Did we budget for it?

When the answer is no, most of the time people will justify their decisions.

  • “I wanted it, so I bought it.”
  • “I need it for my vacation next month.”
  • “It would be so useful in the kitchen.”
  • “I saw it and I just have to have it right now.”
  • “It’s exactly what I need for this thing I’ve been having problems with.”

I get it. I’ve actually unsubscribed from some online creators because I almost always get sucked in to their marketing and feel like I have to buy their products immediately. Want to know how many of those courses I’ve started, let alone finished?


The Marshmallow Experiment

In a study published 1972, scientists at Stanford showed the results of an experiment conducted with young children and some marshmallows.

The researchers sat down at a table with a child, and put a marshmallow on a plate in front of them. Then, the researcher got up to leave, telling the child that if they wait 15 minutes for the researcher to come back, the kid would get two marshmallows instead of just one.

One marshmallow now, or two marshmallows later.

(The researchers left the marshmallow in the room with the child, so if the kid ate the marshmallow while the researcher was gone, they “failed” the experiment.)

Some children ate the marshmallow before the researcher came back. These kids felt like they couldn’t wait for 15 minutes, even if at the end of 15 minutes they would’ve gotten a second marshmallow.

The researchers followed these children as they grew up, and noticed something surprising. The children who delayed their gratification and got the second marshmallow did much better in life than the children who didn’t. They had higher SAT scores, lower BMIs, and appeared to be more successful overall.

But Why?

According to researchers at McGill, it turns out that delayed gratification activates “the hippocampus (associated with memory) and the nucleus accumbens (associated with pleasure). These work together in making critical decisions of this type, where time plays a role.” (Neurosciencenews.com)

They help us use our prefrontal cortex to make decisions. The primal brain is the one that wants the marshmallow NOW, the part of us that wants those new shoes NOW or that expensive toy NOW.

The primal brain is the brain that gets us into credit card debt and keeps us living paycheck-to-paycheck.

The prefrontal coretx, on the other hand, is the part of our brain that makes all our forward-thinking decisions. It’s the part of us that plans for the future.

Delaying gratification means we get to enjoy the things we truly want, more, when we finally get them. Have you ever let something sit in your Amazon shopping cart for a week only to realize a week later that you didn’t want that thing?

Or have you ever decided to wait to buy or do something, knowing that you’ll feel better about the decision if you wait?

Waiting Until Marriage

Waiting for sex until after marriage is a great example of delayed gratification.

Couples who wait until after their wedding day often report happier marriages, better sex lives, and feeling content and happy with their decisions.

On the flip side, couples who did not wait are more likely to end up divorced, and overall dissatisfaction in their marriage, unhappiness, and rocky relationships increases in proportion to the number of partners they’ve had before tying the knot.

And yet hundreds of thousands of young couples indulge in sex before marriage because of the gratification and pleasure it brings in the moment, instead of waiting until a sacred union designed to be the ultimate environment in which to enjoy that kind of relationship.

(Psychological) Benefits of Delayed Gratification

As humans, we live with what Brooke Castillo calls “the motivational triad.” We want to seek pleasure, avoid pain, and do things efficiently. When we delay gratification, we’re intentionally causing ourselves “pain” in the moment, and avoiding immediate pleasure. The process to get through delaying gratification is anything but efficient.

What good could possibly come from this?

  • Accomplishing goals
  • Staying at a healthy weight
  • Financial security
  • Improved self-control and discipline
  • You experience true happiness instead of immediate pleasure

I want to expand on that last one a bit. Overeating, overdrinking, indulging in sex, drugs, gambling, and all sorts of other vices masked as instant pleasure have net negative effects on your life. It’s not true happiness, and it never will be. So why do we lie to ourselves about it?

Will You Eat the Marshmallow or Wait 15 Minutes?

So what will you do now? Will you eat the marshmallow, or will you wait 15 minutes and get two marshmallows? Will you put that new thing in your Amazon shopping cart and then close the browser window instead of buying it?

Think about what the future version of you wants to do. Take a peek into your future, envisioning the kind of life you want to live and lead. Do you get there by indulging in the now instead of putting off some of the instant gratification?

Or do you get there by purposefully planning your life and delaying your in-the-moment desires for the future desires that truly matter to you?

Think about it.

About the author 


Life coach, author, podcast host, cat mom, wife, Ravenclaw, and semi-compulsive hiker living in the Montana Rockies.

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