Delaying gratification can reap rewards

“Get away from the dessert table!” As a kid, it’s seemed as though Mom had cameras hidden in the kitchen. Whenever my brother and I got within sampling distance of that delicious flapper pie, she would sound a warning.

“Sometimes it is harder to deprive oneself of a pain than of a pleasure.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald, American novelist

“Get away from the dessert table!”

As a kid, it’s seemed as though Mom had cameras hidden in the kitchen. Whenever my brother and I got within sampling distance of that delicious flapper pie, she would sound a warning. Flapper pie was a dessert reserved for special occasions or extra special guests and thus a treat we enjoyed only once or twice per year. For those unfamiliar with this heavenly creation, flapper pie features a cooked egg custard filling poured into a graham cracker crust, topped with almond-flavored meringue and sprinkled with graham cracker crumbs. And no one made (or makes, for that matter) a better flapper pie than my mother.

My brother and I were determined to enjoy dessert before the meal. Mom told us dessert always tasted better when you waited for it, and she was right. It occurred to me that many people prefer to have their pie and eat it first. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to scoop up the reward for our efforts. The problem is we sometimes want the reward before putting forth the effort. We are unwilling to delay gratification.

Some might say that our world has become a place of instant gratification. If we want a hot meal, we pop it into the microwave. If we want the latest gadget, we whip out our credit card and buy it. New research suggests that the emotional satisfaction we expect to enjoy or imagine enjoying does not often line up with the reality of the experience. A driving need to satisfy whatever desire is foremost in our mind is often followed by a period of guilt and regret.

It has been said so often as to be nearly a cliché, but it remains true, “Life is not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” Research has also shown that our brains experience more pleasure when working towards goals than they do when we actually achieve them. I’m sure we’ve all had those moments where we’ve worked so hard for something and when we finally achieve it, it feels strangely anti-climactic. Think about how much pleasure is generated in the countdown to Christmas — often more than experienced on Christmas Day itself.

One of the most interesting examples of this truth can be seen in a study done on the effect of vacations on people’s levels of happiness. Researchers found that no matter how fun or relaxing a getaway was for vacationers, happiness quotients went right back to baseline levels in two weeks or less after the trip. The most tangible boost in people’s happiness actually came from anticipating the vacation and not from going on it! Just thinking about how great it would be going on vacation actually made people happier for a full eight weeks in advance.

In his timeless classic The Road Less Travelled, Dr. M. Scott Peck writes of delaying gratification as “the process of scheduling the pain and pleasure of life in such a way as to enhance the pleasure by meeting and experiencing the pain first and getting it over with.”

Peck, a psychotherapist, claims that most people who willingly delay gratification learn this trait as children and build upon it over time. He uses education as an example: the aware, goal-focused child realizing that school — though often anything but enjoyable — is a necessary precursor to post-secondary success and the procurement of a great career.

Peck also suggests that an inability to delay gratification can lead to impulsive behaviour, difficulty socializing and a victim mentality — ultimately, damaging our self-esteem. In extreme cases, Peck claims that a demand for instant gratification can result in everything from disastrous marriages and financial calamity to engaging in illegal activities and even psychosis.

Why do a majority of people develop a capacity to delay gratification while a substantial minority fails, often irretrievably, to develop this capacity? Says Peck, “The answer is not absolutely, scientifically known. The role of genetic factors is unclear. The variables cannot be sufficiently controlled for scientific proof. But most of the signs rather clearly point to the quality of parenting as the determinant.” It would appear to be the result of poor early programming.

Part of the problem may lie in our belief that delaying anything means to deny ourselves that which we rightfully deserve. Indeed, a distorted sense of entitlement can create an even more distorted view of choice and consequence. It may seem like a good idea to enjoy what we want now and work to pay for it later, but the “later” can easily become bittersweet and soon lose its luster. And thus you couldn’t fully enjoy your new thing or experience.

Claims Peck, when we delay gratification (and practise patience), we often discover that we need less of it then we once thought we did or that don’t need the thing at all.

Perhaps true mastery is the result of mastering ourselves — being able to decide when and where to indulge our desires as opposed to being at the whim of each passing fancy. Delaying our gratification builds both our self-confidence — enhances the control we have over our life — and develops our self-discipline. Delaying gratification requires discipline and discipline, like any muscle, must be exercised in order to build its strength.

“Freedom is not procured by a full enjoyment of what is desired,” wrote Epictetus, the Greek philosopher, “but by controlling that desire.”

There is great value in learning to wait for the things we want, whether as individuals moving successfully through life or two boys hoping to indulge in a slice of delicious flapper pie. Mother was right: waiting always made the dessert taste better and the reward for doing so even sweeter.

Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His new book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca

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