Would you rather go home early from work today, or have an all-expenses-paid vacation to Hawaii in six months? Easy choice, right? The power of delayed gratification is one of the oldest and best-known secrets in the world. But there’s a reason we keep talking about it—we’re a lot better at talking than doing.
But it is probably much more worth doing than you realize. Usually, when we think about this concept, we think about something like the simple, exaggerated example I gave above. One candy now, or two candies in an hour. An easy day today, or a promotion tomorrow. Free time to play and socialize now, or financial security years down the road. In other words, there’s a tendency to think of delayed gratification as a strategy for changing our circumstances, and while it can be that, it is also much more.
There have been lots of studies on this sort of thing, and basically what they’ve found is that this can be one of the most key issues of your life in terms of long-term happiness. They found that people who practice delayed gratification get sick less often, have less severe illnesses and recover faster when they do get sick, live longer, rate their life as happier, have more friends, tend to make more money, have more long-lasting relationships, have lower blood pressure and pulse rate—the list just keeps going like that. So don’t do it for the sake of a prize at the end, do it for the greater happiness and quality of life that the practice itself can give you.
A long time ago, before the night Hope kicked me out of the house and led me to change my life, we got into an argument about a watch I wanted to buy. It was about $150, and I felt like it would be a help in my work, but honestly, I think appearances were a big part of what I really wanted too. At the time we weren’t doing so hot financially and Hope kept telling me that we shouldn’t stretch ourselves for a watch. Eventually, I forced things and bought the watch against her wishes.
I felt bad about it even when I was doing it, and I felt a little of that same pain every time I put it on—so not my best decision. But you want to know the best part? Not that long after I bought the watch, one of my clients at a workshop gave me a watch as an incredibly generous gift. It was worth thousands of dollars, nicer by far than the one I’d bought for myself. When I wear that watch, I remember a good day of fulfilling work, and all the wonderful people I met.
Obviously, things like that won’t always drop in your lap. But I don’t know how many times I’ve seen someone settle for something less than they could have had, only to regret the decision later. The key, to me, is balance. Yes, there are times to move quickly and when “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” as the saying goes. But not out of fear. The loving thing is to pursue the best outcome for yourself as well as others. That takes all the prudence you have, but it takes a bit of faith, too—in God, in yourself, or perhaps just in the power of doing the right thing.
I say “the right thing” because I do think there is a moral element at play here. That may seem strange, and I’m not saying that indulging yourself in some small, harmless way is evil, but consider this: almost all crimes are committed out of a desire for some kind of instant gratification. Delayed gratification requires patience, and the opposite of patience, I would say is anger. In almost every instance where we struggle to do what we believe is right, it’s hard because it means surrendering or putting off our own desires. In other words, most moral struggles in our lives are a struggle between instant and delayed gratification.
You see when we imagine ourselves doing something that we believe is wrong—regardless of what it is or whether it actually is wrong—the hypothalamus releases both the positive, love-based chemicals and the negative, fear-based chemicals. So far as we know, this is the only thing in the world that has this effect on us, and the result is an overwhelming chemical tidal wave that eventually makes it almost impossible not to gratify our immediate impulses. What’s more, these experiences are highly addictive because of the brain chemicals being released, and they very often get labeled as traumas by our subconscious because of the amount of adrenaline involved. That would be my best guess as to why practicing delayed gratification instead has such a miraculous effect on our health and quality of life.
So this week, I would encourage you to inspect your own life. Are you practicing delayed gratification in your work, your health, your relationships—or are you caught in a cycle of addictive self-gratification? If you are, know that you are in good company. I think that probably everyone on earth goes through this at some point in their life, or more realistically, many times. I’m certainly no exception. Try to become aware of where you struggle in your life and use our tools to help wherever you can. It can be difficult to see the value of putting off your desires when you’re in the midst of them, but gain some distance, clear your head, and seek balance in your life. You’ll soon realize just how much better things can get.
Have a blessed, wonderful day!