Delayed Gratification Doesn’t Mean Delaying Your Happiness

In 1970 Walter Mischel and Ebbe B. Ebbesen of Stanford University conducted their now famous marshmallow test. The purpose of this study was to understand how and when children develop and control deferred gratification.

In order to conduct their experiment, they studied children from ages 4 to 6. One by one, researchers led these young children into the testing room and offered them a single marshmallow, with a caveat: if they waited, they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow.

Some children were unable to resist the urge and popped the marshmallow in their mouths immediately. Other children attempted to control themselves, but gave into their temptations after just a few minutes. A few children showed remarkable constraint and resisted the urge of eating the first marshmallow.

Some kids would cover their eyes with their hands. Others turned around so they couldn’t see the marshmallow staring back at them. One kicked the desk in an effort of self-control. One kid gently stroked the marshmallow, but didn’t eat it, and was rewarded for his patience.

After an excruciating 15 minutes, researchers came back and rewarded the children with a second marshmallow. Roughly one-third of the children studied were able to delay gratification long enough to receive their reward.

At the time the experiment wasn’t revolutionary. The study simply showed that some kids had a preference for delayed gratification. It wasn’t until years later that researchers really understood the circumstances of their study.

In follow-up studies, researchers found that those children who deferred eating the marshmallow ended up with better life outcomes. Using SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index, and other measures as a benchmark, researchers found that those who delayed gratification ended up being more successful 20 years later.

Is Delayed Gratification a Good Thing?

This study implies that delayed gratification is a good thing. It shows that those with patience are ultimately rewarded in the end. But I believe there are some flaws.

I am going to argue against delayed gratification. I don’t believe it’s the “great thing” that some make it out to be. As a matter of fact, I believe delayed gratification is actually a bad thing.

I have become aware that my peers, millennials, are putting off happiness today so they can achieve more success later in life. All this in an attempt to attain higher job status and receive a higher income.

What if we are only chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?

We’re told at a young age to do well in school so we can get into a good college. That way we can get a respected degree which will help us land a well-paying, prestigious job. Then we can marry our soulmate, buy a home, have 2.5 children, and live the American dream.

Only after we do all of that will we feel fulfilled and have a great life. Except this isn’t true. This dream is only an illusion we’ve been fed most of our young adult lives. And many of us are only now figuring this out.

Chasing a False Dream

My friends are going to school longer and getting more degrees in order to fulfill this false dream. They’re caught chasing the carrot of finding a job they love that will (hopefully) land them a fat paycheck.

But this isn’t what happens. Here’s the truth: we’ll go to school, then we’ll get a job in our respectful fields. We’ll become unhappy with that job, so we’ll go back to school. We’ll hope that our new job pays better and is more respectable. Then maybe, just maybe, we’ll be happy.

When we finally achieve all this, we realize we aren’t any happier than we were before. As a matter of fact, we’re more stressed and unhappy.

We’ve been told that delaying gratification is going to make us happy. We’re going to make more money so we can buy a bigger home and send our kids to the best schools. But once we reach these predetermined goals, we’re going to find that we’re still waiting on that promised feeling of happiness and accomplishment.

The Vicious Cycle of “Success”

Many people hate their jobs or have horrible bosses. Their work doesn’t fulfill them. They’re not respected. They’re not rich and powerful like they thought they would be. They haven’t changed the world yet.

Many people try to escape this rut. How do they do this? By chasing more degrees, getting advanced certifications, and clawing for promotions at work.

Too often we end up chasing the next level of success. Nothing ends up being good enough. We become so fixated on trying to reach the next level in hopes it will bring us satisfaction.

We sacrifice today for hopes of a brighter tomorrow. We forget to take a moment to live in the here and now because we are always fixated on the future, striving for more.

Let’s look at college students. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of American, 80% of college students frequently or sometimes experience daily stress. 34% of students had felt depressed at some point in the past 3 months.

In addition to the stress, millennials don’t get away from work. 9 out of 10 millennials can access work info at any time. 73% are expected to be contactable by their employer at any point.

Our elders are telling us to work hard to achieve happiness. We’ve been taught that to be successful you must live out the prescribed dream, and to do so you must always be future-focused.

What happened to enjoying the ride of life? We’re pushed by our parents to do this, be that, and get this. Our parents have the best intentions, but the results are undesirable.

Students are stressed from school and finals. They are trying to get into the best medical schools or the best MBA programs. We have this drive to be the best and to make a difference. Then when we don’t make that huge impact on the world, we feel insignificant. We come to the realization that a longer journey awaits with more stress and anxiety.

What’s the solution? How do we solve this problem? If we’re constantly chasing the carrot, and happiness is always out of our reach, what should we do?

The answer is nothing novel. We need to be happy now with where and who we are.

What Really Matters?

If you were to die tomorrow, would your degrees matter? Would your job title matter? Of course not.

If you’re trying to live out some fantasy, and you’re hoping to find the light at the end of the tunnel, is it really worth it?

Quit racing to be the success that everyone wants you to be. Don’t stress yourself out on a daily basis trying to achieve a dream that somebody else planned for you.

Learn how to be happy today and enjoy the progress that you’re making. Hang on for a ride.

Continue to strive and reach for the stars. But don’t put your happiness and sanity on the line today in hopes that you’ll end up being happy tomorrow.

Learn because you enjoy learning. Don’t learn just so you can get a piece of paper that tells everyone the knowledge you’ve gained.

Don’t wait until tomorrow to try and make a difference in the world. Help someone out today. Go out of your way to be nice to others.

You don’t need to be rich to help people. You don’t need to be rich to be happy.

Live in the present. Become more mindful and conscious of what’s going on around you.

Continue to move forward and grow and make progress. Work hard and make a difference in somebody’s life, starting with your own.

Stop trying to chase the elusive dream of making a big paycheck and having your happiness hinge on your wealth and income.

You can still be successful with this new mindset. Quit delaying your life for tomorrow and enjoy today. It could be your last.

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Originally published at freethinkr.org on October 8, 2015.

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