You might have heard of the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, where, starting in the late 1960s, researchers put young children in a room alone with a marshmallow (or pretzels or cookies), telling them that they could eat the treat at any time. However, if they waited 15 minutes, they would get two marshmallows. Decades later, the kids who delayed their gratification were more likely to have better life outcomes in areas such as SAT scores, body mass index, and more brain activity in the prefrontal cortex.
The theory is that those wired to delay gratification are more equipped to deal with stress when pursuing goals throughout life and are “more able to sustain effort and deal with frustration,” psychologist Dr. Walter Mischel, the originator of the study, told CNN.
While the media has exaggerated the importance of the study’s findings, according to Mischel, not to mention the study having flaws, like a homogeneous sample, it’s a fascinating idea. Regardless, I’ve always found delaying gratification fun. Recently, I told the ladyfriend a story about how, in fourth grade on pepperoni pizza day, I picked off the three pepperonis on my pizza and set them aside on my plate. Thinking they were intended garbage, my friend reached across the table for them. I batted his hand away and said, “I’m saving those for the end!” After the story, the ladyfriend said, “You still do that!” Apparently, I had done it on one of our first few dates – again with pizza, this time with pineapple.
Perhaps there’s an evolutionary explanation for this behavior. If things are going well in the present, why not save a bit of the good fortune for later, when circumstances might be different?
For me, delaying gratification is not about deprivation, but about saving a morsel of joy for later. That “later” can be minutes, like when eating a sandwich, eating all around the edges so your last few bites are from the fluffy, crust-less center. Or when eating something like a burrito, it is imperative to save a bite for the end that has the perfect combination of the burrito’s filling so the meal ends on a stellar note. There’s nothing like a final bite of just tortilla and sour cream to ruin your day.
Or that “later” can be months, like with a special bottle of beer, like the brew I had once been saving on the top shelf of my refrigerator. I had recently moved to Durango from Connecticut and had a bottle of Dogfish Head 90 Minute I was saving for a special day, not knowing if I’d be able to find it out here. A colleague had stopped by to pick up a chair she’d left at the party I had the day before. Despite the brevity of the visit, she asked if she could have a beer and I said, “Go for it.” Now, the middle shelf in the refrigerator was stacked with leftover beer from the party, but wouldn’t you know it, she bypassed all of it and reached for that lone bottle of 90 Minute tucked away up top in the back. Perhaps, I should have let it go, but I had to stop her. Any other beer in the fridge, I told her, but I’m saving that one.
Delaying gratification can be agonizing but ultimately fun. In the anxiety-ridden days of Trump, I’m an increasingly obsessive checker of news. But man is it satisfying to avoid news the entire day and then open up the iPad at night and see the day’s catastrophes. Or to turn off my phone (or unbearably try to ignore the buzzing and chirping in my pocket) and wait hours to check messages.
But it’s a great practice of establishing and maintaining control over our lives or to create opportunities for small joys in a world that encourages instant gratification.
For now, the ladyfriend and I are going to use St. Patrick’s Day to finally open the pricey bottle of whiskey from the Dingle Distillery we bought in Dingle, Ireland, last year. Regardless of how it tastes, the fun has been waiting for this day.