Why you shouldn’t focus on delayed gratification

This week, a friend of a friend passed away suddenly and unexpectedly due to a burst brain aneurysm. He was in the middle of life and nothing externally would suggest that it was about to end. It came as a shock to everyone.

This has made me think about what we choose to postpone to the future. A future that there’s no guarantee we will have.

Delayed gratification is deemed a marker for future success

In the 1960s, in the famous Marshmallow Experiment, researchers measured the ability to delay gratification in small kids. You have probably heard about it. Children were set in a room with a marshmallow on the table. They were then offered a deal.

The researcher was going to leave and come back and if the child didn’t eat the marshmallow while he was away, they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. But if they decided to eat the first marshmallow they wouldn’t get a second one. The researches was gone for 15 minutes.

The choice was between something good right now or something better later on. Some children had no hesitation and ate the first marshmallow at once. Others waited for some time but sooner or later succumbed to the temptation. And some were able to wait the whole time and got rewarded with their second marshmallow.

Being able to postpone the immediate pleasure for a bigger reward later on is what delayed gratification is all about.

The children who were willing to delay gratification turned out more successful later in life, with lower likelihood of obesity, better response to stress, lower levels of substance abuse etc. This study and follow-up studies have been used to show how discipline – the ability to delay gratification – is a pre-requisite for success in life.

We delay our gratification in the short term in order to achieve something we want in the longer term. The short term “happiness” of eating that dessert, avoiding that pain, indulging in that piece of fun, is smaller than the happiness and satisfaction of finishing something bigger and more important.

Delaying gratification then becomes an important tool in order to not get distracted by hedonistic indulgences and work towards deeper and more sustainable happiness and fulfilment in life.

On the smaller scale, this makes sense.

  • If you delay the gratification of watching Netflix in the evening and work on a side project, you can ship it faster (or actually ship something at all)
  • If you delay the gratification of eating that fast food, you can achieve your goals of becoming healthier
  • If you delay the gratification of short term gains, you can work on a longer term strategy which will give you bigger returns

Delayed gratification can be trained

The good news is that this is not an inborn trait. The ability to delay gratification is trainable. Self-discipline is a muscle and you can make it stronger.

James Clear talks about it in his article about delayed gratification. And he probably speaks in large part to the millennial generation, who is constantly depicted in media as the generation of instant gratification.

It’s understandable that this is a cause of concern. Will the millennials all be obese, drug addicts, vulnerable to each and every stressor in life? What will building a culture of instant gratification and dopamine hits do to our brains and lives in the long term?

In James’ article, he points out how to train the ability to delay the gratification. It’s all about expectancy.

In a follow-up study, children were exposed to some experiences before being given the marshmallow test. Both groups were promised small things, like a box of bigger crayons and a set of better stickers than they already had. And for one group of children the promises were kept, but for the other group of children they were not.

In the following marshmallow test, naturally the group of kids who had a reliable experience performed much better. They were more likely to wait for the future reward because they had learnt that waiting was worth it.

And this is how you would start training your own ability to delay gratification. Start with something small enough that you know you can deliver on and do it consistently over time. The brain learns that it’s worth waiting for the bigger reward down the road.

Delayed gratification is the principle behind modern western society

This whole principle of later reward is how we as adults have learnt that society works. That we have to postpone our gratification and pleasures in the short term in favour of something we desire in the long term future.

  • We spend years in college, taking on huge loans, in expectancy of a reward in form of a good education and a higher paid job
  • We toil away at work in expectancy of a reward in the form of promotions and climbing the career ladder
  • We spend decades of working in anticipation of a reward in form of a cosy retirement

We are told that there is light at the end of the tunnel and we should just keep on plodding along and trust that the reward at the other end will be worth it. Delayed gratification – and the self-discipline it requires – becomes almost the mark of a hero.

Doing the Right Thing in the face of hardship. Not succumbing to temptations. Perhaps it’s part of the Christian heritage of the western world: walking the path that is straight and narrow?

Is the ability to delay gratification truly a universal marker for a successful life, or does it simply seem like it because we have built a society that require it for success?

Delayed gratification depends on the promise of the reward at the end

One reason that the millennial generation is less likely to postpone gratification is that the promises of the past are no longer likely to be kept. The changing world isn’t playing by the rules we have learnt any more.

  • A college education is an investment of diminishing returns. A degree today is less valuable than 20 years ago, and the salary increase you might get is not likely to compensate for the huge amount of debt you have accumulated.
  • You can become educated without a college education, and you can get a high paying tech job based on acquired skills and practical knowledge without sinking into huge debt.
  • The promise of a full-time permanent job is becoming more and more rare. The gig economy is a thing, estimated to include 20% of the US workforce in 2020. And while some explain it with the millennial generation being disloyal job hoppers, others mean the gig economy is a reaction to the last recession where it became harder and harder to secure a permanent position.
  • Climbing a career ladder is not something that appeals to everyone, and not everyone who tries will reach the top. What happens to those who get stuck midway? Should you continue slaving away and wait for that promotion and recognition that never comes?
  • The prospect of a cosy retirement is also looking bleak. Some researchers have calculated that millennials in the United States need to put nearly half of their income in retirement savings in order to be able to retire at 65.
  • Life expectancy in the United States in on the decline too, mainly because an increase of death rates in the ages between 25 and 64. A major contributor is the prevalence of chronic health problems, together with drug overdoses and suicides. You are simply not as likely to live to become old in the first place, or if you are you’re likely to live with chronic health issues.

No wonder if the millennial generation scores lower on the marshmallow test! Why wait for the second marshmallow when they cannot trust that there will be one?

But do they really score lower? No. Actually, they don’t.

The promised reward needs to be both reliable and worth the effort

In a 2017 analysis of 50 years worth of performance data on the Marshmallow Test – released as a preprint at the Open Science Framework – John Protzko at the University of California, Santa Barbara, concludes that in fact children of today are capable of more self-restraint than previous generations, with their ability to delay gratification having increased by about a minute per decade over the last 50 years.

This indicates that the current behaviour of the millennial generation, and Generation Z that comes after, is more a signal of mistrust and broken promises from society than a lack of intrinsic self-discipline and willpower.

Because for the decision to be made to delay the reward, we must both trust that the promise will be fulfilled and also deem that the reward is worth the wait. Or the effort. Or the short term discomfort.

It’s a simple matter of calculation.

Short term discomfort < perceived long term gain = long term view wins

Short term discomfort > perceived long term gain = short term view wins

Easy, right? But what happens when we delay our current pleasures in anticipation of a gratification that never comes? What happens when we imagine a long term gain that is so big that we are willing to endure almost anything, but the long term reward never occurs? How long will you endure no reward without turning bitter?

What if there is no reward?

When we become too focused on the delay of our gratification as a virtue, we default to denying ourselves a bit of happiness or pleasure today in the presumed certainty that the future brings us even more down the road. We think that life has to be hard, and you must struggle, as if pushing gratification into the future automatically will make the reward larger and better.

We even start to live a little in that future, in the better and brighter image we have in our heads, instead of the current circumstances of drudgery that we think we have to endure in order to get what we want.

But we are betting on future circumstances that we don’t know, or even a future that we might not have. In a worst case scenario you sacrifice everything for a future potential reward that never comes, and you end up resentful and in misery.

Not to mention working toward a long term goal and then life unexpectedly ends before you even have a chance to experience what the results would be like.

That just sounds like a lose-lose proposition.

How can we make this into a more winning bet?

The opposite is clearly not desirable: living at the whim of every short term impulse, idea or desire. If we succumb to the siren song of comfort, we lose out on those rewards that actually demand some more work and determination.

Examine the premises of the trade-off

The first thing to examine is of course the actual promise. How likely is it to be fulfilled? Who has control over the fulfilment, is it a naturally given truth or merely a hope?

If I decide I want to get in shape, I also know that working out will make my body stronger and fitter. I have control over the circumstances and if I do the right things, improvement is more or less guaranteed.

Other things are less predictable especially when it comes to working on one’s own projects and ideas. The outcome will often look like a potential, and working towards that goal will be a case of taking a more or less calculated risk.

Is the potential gain worth some effort? How big effort? Will you spend the weekend on a Netflix binge or bring that side project forward?

Then the second thing to examine is the discomfort. How you can make that barrier of unpleasantness a bit lower and a bit more pleasant.

Turning a lose-lose proposition into a win-win scenario means you find a way to enjoy the road as well as the reward at the end of it. It takes awareness and conscious choice, but it’s possible.

Let’s take exercise as an example.

Say you live a sedentary life and have done so for a very long time. You know that beginning some kind of exercise and movement habit is crucial for health later on in life. But right now you feel fine and you don’t have any health problems.

The thought of cardiovascular health and avoiding heart attacks in your senior years is an abstract problem. You know it’s important intellectually but it’s not a burning issue. And starting exercising from scratch is hard. It’s uncomfortable. It’s boring.

The long term conceptual future gains of cardio health is not bigger than the current discomfort and struggle of exercising. The short term view wins. So you remain where you are.

One view here is that you need to work on your discipline more. Be less hedonistic and short-sighted, and just do what is needed. You know what is good for you. Just suck it up and get it done.

Move away from default brute force self-discipline

But there is an alternative to beating yourself up and forcing yourself to do things. And that is to find a way to enjoy the exercise itself. By decreasing the size of the discomfort, the equation shifts in favour of the long term win.

This has also been affirmed in habit research. There’s this habit loop of cue->action->reward. You have a cue that triggers your habit, the habit itself, and then the immediate reward that the habit gives you.

In our exercise example, the distant thought of far off cardio health is not a reward enough to form a habit. We need a short term immediate reward in order to create that positive habit loop. That could be finding an accountability buddy to do it with, or simply experimenting with different sports so you find something that you actually like doing.

But this principle of granting yourself short term rewards also extend to non-habits, such as goal completion and projects.

Find a way to enjoy the journey too

I no longer believe in automatic benefits in denying myself pleasure. It’s so easy to get stuck in some kind of martyrdom, where you accept circumstances that you shouldn’t just because of a dangling potential reward somewhere far out in the future.

I have fallen into that trap myself. And I don’t think it’s worth it. In fact, I start to doubt if delaying gratification on the bigger scale is something to recommend at all, ever.

Because I have also experienced the other side. If you want to be really really good at something, you have to like to practice. You have to enjoy putting in the work. The furthest I have come and the biggest rewards I’ve obtained is when doing the work also was inherently fun. Not every single day or every single moment, sure, but somewhere enjoyable at the core.

And the weird thing is that if often comes down to a choice. You can choose to make it worth it. It’s often a matter of perspective. You can choose to enjoy the winding road as well.

It’s double gratification: you both enjoy the journey and get a reward in the end.

Short term reward + long term reward = everybody wins.

The longer the road, and the further away the potential reward, the more important it is that the way there is enjoyable too. That way you won’t feel as if you’ve been cheated if the reward for some reason don’t materialise as promised or assumed.

And you will not have wasted your life in drudgery if it all ends tomorrow.

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