The one thing we 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’re 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’re confident of the benefits that will be coming our way later on. That confidence involves informing our minds, emotions, and will that it’s worth persevering toward the greater goal even at the expense of 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, my companions and I quickly gulped our coffee and loaded into the game van to shoot some photos of the magnificent birds and animals of the Mara during their early morning activities.

Almost immediately upon leaving camp, we began seeing hundreds of wildebeests, Thomson’s gazelles, warthogs, zebras, impala, topi, and Cape buffalo. We were even fortunate enough to get some shots of two black rhinoceroses . . . And 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 buffalo had assigned huge male sentinels to the edge of the herd to warn and protect the others.

As we viewed the unfolding drama 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 slowly crept into the scene. Now the buffalo was confused as to which lion 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 its tail end. The lion sank his sharp teeth into the bull, ripping the hide and laying open the backbone 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 jawful of upper vertebrae. The big bull went down, sitting like a dog, unable to move. That allowed for the lions’ unguarded access to the bull. Right then an unusual thing happened. For no 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’ll discipline ourselves and not kill and eat you now. We’ll wait and have fresh, juicy meat at our own discretion.” They escorted the big Cape buffalo over to the thick savanna grass and lay 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 all have their roots in the inability to practice delayed gratification. There isn’t 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.

In the late sixties and early seventies, Stanford University professor Walter Mischel tested preschool kids on their ability to delay gratification. The children were asked to stay in a room alone for fifteen minutes, and a marshmallow was placed in front of each child. If they waited for fifteen minutes before eating the marshmallow, they were told they would get another one. So they would get a total of two marshmallows.Six of the ten students ate their marshmallows before the designated time, even though they were given a toy to distract them, and only four lasted the fifteen minutes
Mischel followed up approximately ten years later and learned that all of the children who were able to delay gratification had good grades, good prospects, and good relationships. Those who had waited to get two marshmallows also scored higher on their SATs than the others. In the study, delayed gratification was associated with adolescents being “more academically and socially competent, verbally fluent, rational, attentive, planful, and able to deal well with frustration and stress” compared to those who opted for instant gratification.

If you’re 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!