The one thing we do know about instant gratification is that we can’t quite experience it soon enough. Our culture seems to claim a birthright for instant and lavish gratification. Delayed gratification, however, is one of the keys to cultural well-being. Overcoming the demand for instant gratification is necessary for healthy achievement and fulfillment on a personal level as well as a cultural level.
We can experience a world of difference when we are no longer addicted to indulging in instant gratification on our way to a larger and more meaningful reward. Delayed gratification can be thought of as instant gratification saved and leveraged for later usage. When gratification is delayed, we are indirectly saying that we can handle the lack of a reward now, and that we are confident of the benefits that will be coming our way later on. That confidence involves informing our mind, emotion, and will that it is worth persisting toward the greater goal even at the expense of not consuming the immediate gratification.
I witnessed one of the most impressive examples of the principle of delayed gratification in Africa while on a Safari in the Masai Mara of Kenya. At the break of dawn, we quickly gulped our coffee and loaded into the game van to shoot some photos of the magnificent birds and animals of the Mara in their early morning activities.
Almost immediately upon leaving camp, we began seeing hundreds of wildebeests, Thompson gazelles, warthogs, zebras, impala, topi, and Cape buffalo. We were even fortunate enough to get some shots of two black rhinoceroses . . . then came the thrill. We spotted a mature male lion and a young female just returning to their pride following a night of hunting. They encountered a large herd of Cape buffalo beginning their day of grazing. The buffalos had assigned huge male sentinels to the edge of the herd to warn and protect the others.
As we viewed the ordeal from our safari van, the male lion carefully stalked the buffalo guard. They paired off staring at each other. The buffalo began to snort and bellow and paw the ground, throwing his head of massive horns from side to side. But the male lion was not to be intimidated. He just began circling the big bull. Meanwhile, the young lioness began to creep into the scene. Now, the buffalo was confused as to which he should watch. Several times he bellowed, lowered his head and charged the male lion. The male lion retreated a few paces as the female crept closer. When she got too close, the buffalo charged at her to move her back. At that moment the male lion attacked the bull from the rear by jumping high onto the tail of the bull. The lion sank his sharp teeth into the bull, ripping the hide and laying open the back bone section about eight inches above the tail. The bull was temporarily paralyzed. As quick as lightening, the female was back at the tail with the male, and they each grabbed a jaw full of upper vertebra. The big bull went down, sitting like a dog unable to move. That allowed for the lion’s unguarded access to the bull. Right then an unusual thing happened. Without any apparent reason, the lions backed off and stood looking at the helpless bull, as if to say, "Get up and keep walking around. We have confidence that we've got you but we will discipline ourselves and not kill and eat you now. We will wait and have fresh, juicy meat at our own discretion.” They escorted the big Cape buffalo over to the thick savanna grass and laid down, one on either side of the bull. They would simply delay their gratification and multiply their enjoyment by postponing their consumption. They didn’t need a refrigerator to keep the meat fresh; all they needed to do was to keep the huge bull alive until they were hungry.
The emotional mastery of impulsive indulgence is also necessary to overcome the majority of personal problems people encounter. Overwhelming debt, crime, obesity, sexually transmitted diseases, the breakdown of personal relationships, and the selfish violation of intimate trust have their roots in the inability to practice delayed gratification. There is not a long-term positive correlation between quick rewards and positive benefits. I personally believe that even in business the characteristic that best defines an entrepreneur is the ability to utilize the concept of delayed gratification.
Stanford University professor, Walter Mischel, tested four-year-old kids on their impulsive indulgence behavior and delayed gratification. The children were asked to stay in a room together for fifteen minutes with a marshmallow in front of each child. If they hadn’t eaten the marshmallow after fifteen minutes, they would get another one. So they would get two in total. Two thirds of the students ate their marshmallow, and only a third lasted the fifteen minutes. They followed up fourteen years later and learned that all of the children who were able to delay gratification had good grades, good prospects, and good relationships with their teachers. The average SAT score of those that had waited to get two marshmallows was 210 points higher than the others. In the study, delayed gratification was related to people being self-reliant, trustworthy, dependable, eager to learn, able to cope with frustration, and more competent academically. On the other hand, accepting instant gratification was associated with people that were more likely to be indecisive, stubborn, impulsive, overwhelmed by stress, prone to jealousy, envy, and a lower self-image. If you are a business person, a student, a parent, or any other participant in our culture, the subject of delayed gratification merits a second look. Who knows . . . maybe you could end up with even more than one additional marshmallow?