Walter Mischel, professor at Columbia University (then Stanford University), conducted a now famous experiment observing the relationship between impulse control and success in life. From Wikipedia:
In the 1960s, a group of four year olds were given a marshmallow and promised another if they could wait 20 minutes before eating the first one. Some children could wait and others could not. The researchers then followed the progress of each child into adolescence, and demonstrated that those with the ability to wait were better adjusted and more dependable (determined via surveys of their parents and teachers), and scored an average of 210 points higher on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.
The study suggests that there is a strong correlation between our ability to defer gratification and our success. It requires no stretch of the imagination to see why: a greater ability to exert self-restraint translates to more hard work (studying instead of watching the TV), as well as greater willpower. Jonah Lehrer elaborates in an article in the New Yorker:
At the time, psychologists assumed that children’s ability to wait depended on how badly they wanted the marshmallow. But it soon became obvious that every child craved the extra treat. What, then, determined self-control? Mischel’s conclusion, based on hundreds of hours of observation, was that the crucial skill was the “strategic allocation of attention.” Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow—the “hot stimulus”—the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from “Sesame Street.” Their desire wasn’t defeated—it was merely forgotten. “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place. In adults, this skill is often referred to as metacognition, or thinking about thinking, and it’s what allows people to outsmart their shortcomings. (When Odysseus had himself tied to the ship’s mast, he was using some of the skills of metacognition: knowing he wouldn’t be able to resist the Sirens’ song, he made it impossible to give in.)
But I wonder: Is delayed gratification overrated? Too much of what we’re doing now appears to be in preparation for the future – studying for a degree to secure a good job, joining activities to build up a more substantial CV, networking etc. When we go out to work, we typically go for the jobs that pay well (even if they do not exactly offer a healthy work-life balance), hoping to retire peacefully and enjoy the fruits of our labor then. It is almost akin to factory production: as kids, we’re put into machines with a predetermined mold; some settings are tweaked as we enter adulthood, before we finally exit as old people: the finished products. It’s the Industrial Revolution all over again.
At sixty, if we’ve managed to plough through successfully, we get to enjoy the fruits of our labor. But is that too late? By then, a good deal of opportunities would already have passed us. And by then, it’d be too late to turn back the clock.
That saying, I’m not advocating an “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die” mindset. I’m not even saying that our system of living is too practical and results-oriented. In fact, I do think it’s a privilege to receive education here and – truth be told – lots of us prefer staying in our comfort zone. It’s nice (and convenient) to have a third of your life mapped out for you.
All I’m saying is: it pays to delay gratification, but at times, living for the moment isn’t such a bad idea.