“You only have one life to live,” most people would say. “So, make the most of it because you might not have another chance.” But in anything we do, we cause a reaction in the future. What if opting for instant gratification today makes things worse down the road?

In most families, delayed gratification (or deferred gratification) is a part of the upbringing. For example, saving money for the rainy days is a form of delayed gratification. In essence, it is the act of resisting the temptation for an immediate reward. Instead of smaller rewards, delayed gratification leads to bigger rewards.

But most people opt for instant gratification. These are smaller, and often, temporary rewards that do not provide long-term benefits. Perhaps this is due to the lack of discipline, or failure to see the value of higher rewards, or both.

I am not going to say that it is wrong for people to choose instant gratification. Instead, I am offering you a proof that choosing delayed gratification leads to a better life.

The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment

In the late 60s to early 70s, a psychologist at the Stanford University conducted a series of studies. During his experiments, Prof. Walter Mischel and his team conducted psychological studies involving children. Their purpose was to understand when children start developing control of delayed gratification.

Over the course of the experiments, researchers tested over 600 4-to-6-year old children. They did this by placing a child in an empty room free of distractions. With the child sitting down, researchers placed a piece of marshmallow on the table.

All the children were then given the same deal. They could eat the marshmallow immediately but have only one piece. Or, if they waited for fifteen minutes, then they would receive a second piece.

The researchers would then leave each child in the room and observe them.

So, what do you think happened when a child alone in a room with a piece of marshmallow on the table?

As it turned out, there were children who ate the marshmallow immediately. Because of their inability to resist the temptation, they did not receive a second piece. But a third of the children in the experiment did manage to resist the temptation. By opting for delayed gratification, they received a second piece.

Succeeding Experiments

Let us make an assumption here for a moment. Young children do not understand the concept of delayed gratification as adults do. I would say that is a fair assumption, right?

Prof. Walter Mischel and his researchers did not stop after the marshmallow experiments. Over the next decades, they conducted follow-up studies with unexpected results.

Mischel W, Shoda Y, Peake PK. The nature of adolescent competencies predicted by preschool delay of gratification. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1988 Apr;54(4):687-96.

Prof. Walter Mischel and his team revisited children in their original experiments. The preschool children by this time were adolescents. They found that those who were able to wait longer exhibited positive traits.

Parents of these children rated them being more competent socially and academically. Furthermore, they were more fluent, rational, attentive, and better able to deal with frustrations and stress.

Mischel W1, Shoda Y, Rodriguez MI. Delay of gratification in children. Science. 1989 May 26;244(4907):933-8.

Researchers affirmed that the same children in the previous study are not only more competent cognitively and socially. They also achieved higher scholastic performances (SAT scores).

Instant Gratification

I am not against instant gratification. But if there is a reason to opt for immediate satisfaction, then it must be within limits.

I can think of one instance when instant gratification is useful. But in most other instances, let me put it this way, it is better to wait and aim for the higher rewards.

In finance, the lack of discipline often leads to overspending. I wonder how many people have a negative net worth because of credit cards?

Greed is one of the seven deadly sins. Combine greed and desire for instant gratification, then trouble comes.

I believe, too, that instant gratification has a correlation to perseverance. In other words, underachievers and quitters are those who focus on instant gratification.

About the only good thing about instant gratification, and only within reason, is that it could be a motivator. In pursuit of greater success, one could opt for a small reward to keep the motivation going.

Delayed Gratification

If delayed gratification leads to a higher reward, why do people have a hard time choosing this? It turns out that one reason is the failure to imagine and see the value in the future.

As your read about the marshmallow experiment, some of you may think that the ability to choose between instant or delayed gratification is pre-ordained.

I disagree and here is why.

The marshmallow experiment showed the benefits of self-control and resisting temptations. Knowing these benefits is one thing, but it is the ability to visualize the future that matters. And knowing the importance of visualizing the future, that means now is the time to develop that habit.

Let me end this post with a quote from one of the great motivational speakers in the world. “The ability to discipline yourself to delay gratification in the short term in order to enjoy greater rewards in the long term,” Brian Tracy said, “is the indispensable prerequisite for success.”