At age 30, I am struggling with delay of gratification more than ever before. Delay of gratification is the ability to hold out for a bigger reward or pleasure when there is something tempting right in front of you. For example, I have a hard time saying "no" to a fun trip with friends when I should be saving money toward bigger life goals such as getting out of student loan debt or buying a house. Recently, I heard a wonderful podcast by On the Media titled "Busted: America's Poverty Myths #2 Who Deserves to be Poor?" that helped explain why I am struggling so much with delay of gratification and self control. This podcast episode is part of a 5 part series on the American poverty myths. The whole series is really worth a listen. But on this blog post, I am going to focus on the study on delay of gratification that is mentioned in the beginning of this podcast episode.
The "marshmallow study" is a classic test of delay of gratification for children. The children are given one marshmallow and told by the researchers, "You can eat this now or if you wait for 15 minutes, I will give you a second marshmallow when I come back." It is of course excruciatingly hard for children to wait 15 minutes with a tasty treat right in front of them. The ability to wait, based on this simple test, has been shown to be correlated with better outcomes and success later in life. That is one powerful marshmallow!
In a new study, the researchers from University of Rochester showed that previous experiences can greatly impact the ability to delay gratification. These researchers gave the children a box of crappy crayons or stickers and then promised them a new set of art supplies if they waited. For half of the children, the researcher came back with new supplies as promised; for the other half, the researchers returned and apologized, saying that they do not have the new supplies after all. Then the children were given the marshmallow test. The children who received the promised new art supplies were able to wait much longer for the second marshmallow compared to the children who did not receive the promised art supplies. Makes sense right? When life promises you shinny new boxes of crayons but then gives you crappy ones, it's going to be so much harder to delay gratification next time and trust that life will keep its promises.
When life promises you shinny new boxes of crayons but then gives you crappy ones, it's going to be so much harder to delay gratification next time and trust that life will keep its promises.
As I reflect on my past, I realized that my experiences growing up with financial hardships, immigrating to the U.S., and going to grad school all added to my experiences of "crappy crayons." It's no wonder that at this time in my life, when I finally have some financial, professional and personal freedom, I am having a hard time waiting for the rewards down the road. Now that I know this is crappy-crayon-phenomenon exists, I can practice self-compassion for the times when I chose an instant gratification over the long term goals. I can also be more intentional about giving myself "new crayons" in the forms of small rewards (e.g., a chocolate bar, a bath, a cup of tea) so that I do not feel so depleted and deprived.
How do you practice delay of gratification?
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