Harnessing Instant and Delayed Gratification Great Lakes Psychology Group

Harnessing Instant and Delayed Gratification

A woman in front of a bright window demonstrating instant and delayed gratification, by being on her phone.

Instant and Delayed Gratification: What are they?

Gratification refers to the pleasure or satisfaction derived from the attainment of one’s goals or desires. Instant gratification is the desire or immediate pleasure or relief without postponement. Our relationship with instant gratification developed in a world where survival was perpetually front of mind. Instant gratification was a key factor in ensuring survival by securing attainment of one’s needs on any one given day. As a result, we developed an eye for immediate rewards, even if they are not sustainable solutions in the long-term. Delayed gratification refers to the ability to resist the temptation of an immediate reward in favor of a more substantial reward at a potentially undetermined later date. Delayed gratification requires self-discipline, patience, and the ability to resist the urge for immediate satisfaction. Wielding the capacity to opt for delayed gratification is an essential life skill in the modern world (albeit challenging), as it can help individuals achieve goals and improve their overall well-being.

 Difficulties Posed by Delayed Gratification

The struggle between instant and delayed gratification is exemplified by the classic psychological study involving children and marshmallows originally conducted at Stanford University by psychologist Walter Mischel. In the study, children were left alone in a room with a marshmallow and faced the dilemma of eating one marshmallow now or waiting for an additional marshmallow if they resisted eating the one in front of them. The children squirm, agonize, and attempt to creatively distract their minds from the alluring, sugary goodness of the single marshmallow they shared the room with. The results of the original experiment revealed that only a small percentage of the children could hold out for the second marshmallow, while the rest succumbed to their temptation and ate the first marshmallow despite a larger, promised reward. Follow-up studies on the children who participated in the experiment found that those who demonstrated the ability to delay gratification tended to have better outcomes later in life, including higher SAT scores, better academic performance, and better mental and emotional health.

The difficulty of committing to delayed gratification is on display daily. We are confronted with dilemmas or situations requiring immediate resolutions, struggle to maintain nutritious choices, wrestle with establishing & maintaining a regular exercise routine, or contend with studying for a test instead of watching TV. Our desire for instant gratification or relief often conflicts with our long-term goals and objectives.

Instant Gratification: A Time & a Place

While delayed gratification is often seen as correlating with long-term benefits, there are many situations when it is beneficial and necessary to opt for instant gratification. Take the prioritization of self-care, for instance. Self-care is a unique form of gratification because it can serve both immediate and long-term needs. Perhaps you take a relaxing bath after a long day at work to decompress. Or you feel rejuvenated after spending some time outside going for a walk. Many forms of self-care can provide instant gratification by providing immediate stress relief and the cumulative effects of reinforcing healthy routines. This may also involve indulging in a favorite hobby or watching a movie to alleviate stress or boredom while promoting self-expression. The key is to strike a balance between instant and delayed gratification, using both in moderation to support personal growth and well-being.

Benefits of Engaging in Delayed Gratification

Thoughtfully engaging with the challenge of delayed gratification can be instrumental in promoting relational well-being. Harnessing delayed gratification can lead to improved patience and understanding toward other people. By practicing self-discipline and resisting the urge for instant gratification when confronted with relevant choices, we learn to control our impulses and become better at managing our emotions. This leads to more measured and thoughtful responses to challenges in our relationships rather than impulsive reactions that escalate conflicts. By reflecting and making decisions based on long-term goals, we can become more empathetic and compassionate towards others and their needs. Delayed gratification allows us to develop a greater appreciation for the perspectives of others and a deeper understanding of what is truly important in our relationships, leading to more meaningful and fulfilling connections with those around us.

Delayed gratification positively impacts our overall health and well-being, both physically and mentally. Physically, it helps us make healthier choices, such as avoiding junk food, establishing a regular exercise routine, and getting ample sleep. These choices contribute to our physical well-being by promoting healthy habits and reducing the risk of chronic disease. Mentally, it helps us avoid impulsive decisions that can lead to stress, anxiety, and depression. By exercising delayed gratification, we create space to think through our decisions, consider the long-term consequences, and make choices that positively contribute to our mental well-being.

Emotionally, delayed gratification enables us to manage our emotions and our responses to those emotions. It helps us to avoid quick fixes in our efforts to thwart or ignore uncomfortable feelings and encourages healthy engagement and processing of difficult emotions. We can achieve improved physical, mental, relational, and emotional well-being by harnessing the power of delayed gratification.

Actionable Tools for Engaging with Delayed Gratification

While it may be difficult to break away from our biological tendencies and commit to incorporating delayed gratification, there are steps that you can take to make the process easier:

  1.  Set Specific Goals: Having a clear understanding of what you want to achieve can help you stay motivated and focused on the long-term benefits of delayed gratification. Write down your goals and keep them in a visible place, so you can remind yourself of what you are working towards. See S.M.A.R.T. goals.
  2.  Create a Plan: Start SMALL. Identify achievable steps and create a plan to actualize them. This will help you stay on track and avoid getting overwhelmed by the larger goal. Having a plan can also serve as a reference point when you experience setbacks or unexpected challenges.
  3.  Practice Self-Control: Self-control is a critical component of delayed gratification. Practice self-discipline in small ways, like resisting the urge to check your phone notifications immediately, waiting to make an important purchase, incorporating 5-10 minutes of exercise to build the foundation for a routine, and completing important tasks and chores first before engaging with leisure activities.
  4.  Find Support: Surround yourself with people who understand and support your goals. They can provide encouragement and accountability, making it easier for you to stick to your plan.
  5.  Reward Yourself: Reward yourself for making progress towards your goals. This will help you stay motivated and reinforce the positive benefits of delayed gratification. Studies show that we respond better to positive reinforcement than negative reinforcement.

While our minds make it difficult to commit to delayed gratification, there are steps you can take to become more adept with the practice. By considering opportunities to harness delayed gratification, you can increase your capacity to do hard things, make life more meaningful, and promote physical, emotional, mental, & relational well-being.

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Matthew Werkman LLMSW

More about Matthew Werkman, LLMSW

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I consider it a privilege to hear people's stories and develop a therapeutic relationship to discover new growth and overcome adversity. If you are feeling stressed or stuck, therapy can help restore balance and facilitate lasting change.