Emotional Health

Delay of Gratification: Too Much of a Good Thing

One of the sneakiest, most pernicious forms of self-deprivation involves timing. You don’t outright deny yourself the idea of self-loving action, but you put it off for later.

There are many ways to do this. One of the most common is denying yourself something you want or need now with the idea that it will be more useful or deserved at another time. You may be one of the millions of people who are always dieting or planning to lose weight. This can be a mighty trap. You put off buying nice clothes that fit, experiences like parties and vacations, even career moves until you reach a number you are happy with. Even if year after year, little change occurs, your constant refrain is “not until I lose the weight.”

While this does help keep hope alive, it also deprives you the pleasure of living in the present—and all life occurs in the present. It is like depriving you of the chance to live your life. You are saying, in effect, if I can’t live be the person I want to be, I will sit here on the sidelines until I can.

I have known many women who have lots of nice clothes hanging in their closet that don’t fit them anymore. They won’t get rid of them, but worse, they won’t replace them with clothes that fit because they don’t accept themselves the way they are now. Instead, they wear cheaper or ill-fitting things “for now,” even though “now” can go on a long time.

Granted, many of us can’t afford two (or three) wardrobes, and aiming for self-improvement is not in itself a bad thing. But I know people with unlimited funds do this—one is a billionaire.

Delaying gratification is a mark of maturity and foresight, of course. Walter Mischel’s famous “marshmallow” experiment showed that four-year olds who held out for two marshmallows later instead of having one immediately fared better in later years than their more impulsive peers.  The kids who had the self-control to wait at age four later scored better on several measures, including SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index (BMI), and other life measures. (Mischel, Walter; Ebbesen, Ebbe B. (October 1970). “Attention in delay of gratification”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 16 (2): 329–337. doi:10.1037/h0029815.)

(Eigste, Inge-Marie; Zayas, Vivian; Mischel, Walter; Shoda, Yuichi; Ayduk, Ozlem; Dadlani, Mamta B.; Davidson, Matthew C.; Aber, J. Lawrence; Casey, B.J. (2006). “Predicting Cognitive Control From Preschool to Late Adolescence and Young Adulthood” (PDF). Psychological Science. 17 (6): 478–484. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01732.xPMID 16771797. )

Our culture reinforces this idea in almost all areas. We eat our desert last, we are expected to study before playing, to work five days of the week and rest after, to prepare for the future by saving money and planning our lives with an eye for future consequences.

There are a couple of fallacies here, however. For one thing, the kids were only asked to wait a few minutes more to get the second treat. Personality factors are important, but no controls were made for the individual children’s past experience. Kids with reasons to mistrust adults might be less inclined to trust a stranger’s promises. And those with a history of deprivation are also less inclined to wait.

Also, four  year-olds differ from adults in many ways. Adults have the capacity to see and the future much more realistically and have the capacity to judge when something is more or less likely to occur.

For little children, life is often one new experience after another. They learn, as their brains mature, that some things are routinely pleasant and amusing, some less so, and some not at all. Once, when my daughter was almost three, my husband took us with him on a business trip to Orlando. I knew she was perhaps a bit young for Disney World, but decided to take her for a few hours. Before we left, I told her we were going somewhere “really fun.”

After we had been there a few minutes, as she looked around with wonder at the other kids, the toys, the Disney characters in costume and the colorful rides, she turned to me and gasped, “You’re right! This is really fun!” Her previous experience had led her to believe something fun was a trip to the park, a birthday party, or some other mildly stimulating outing. Nothing had prepared her for this. The word “fun” had just taken on a new meaning.

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