Patience can be regarded as a decision-making problem: eat up all the grain today or plant it in the earth and wait for it to multiply. Unfortunately, human beings evolved not as farmers but as hunter-gatherers, and have a strong tendency to discount long-term rewards. Our ancestral shortsightedness is borne out by the Stanford marshmallow experiment, a series of studies on delayed gratification led by Walter Mischel in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These studies, conducted on hundreds of mostly four- and five-year old children, involved a simple binary choice: either eat this marshmallow, or hold back for 15 minutes and be given a second marshmallow. Having explained this choice to a child, the experimenter left him alone with the marshmallow for 15 minutes. Follow-up studies carried out over 40 years found that the minority of children who had been able to hold out for a second marshmallow went on to enjoy significantly better life outcomes, including higher test scores, better social skills, and less substance misuse.
Even so, patience involves much more than the mere ability to hold back for some future gain. Exercising patience (note the use of the verb ‘to exercise’) can be compared to dieting or growing a garden. Yes, waiting is involved, but one also needs to have a plan in place, and, moreover, to work at that plan. Thus, when it comes to others, patience does not amount to mere restraint or toleration, but to a complicit engagement in their struggle and welfare. In that much, patience is a form of compassion, which, rather than disregarding and alienating people, turns them into friends and allies.
If impatience implies impotence, patience implies power, power born out of understanding. Rather than make us into a hostage to fortune, patience frees us from frustration and its ills, delivers us to the present moment, and affords us the calm and perspective to think, say, and do the right thing in the right way at the right time—which is why, with psychotherapy, both patient and therapist can require several years together. Last but not least, patience enables us to achieve things that would otherwise have been impossible to achieve. As La Bruyère put it, ‘There is no road too long to the man who advances deliberately and without undue haste; there are no honours too distant to the man who prepares himself for them with patience.’ Exercising patience does not mean never protesting or giving up, but only ever doing so in a considered fashion: never impetuously, never pettily, and never pointlessly. Neither does it mean withholding, just like ageing a case of fine wine for several years does not mean withholding from wine during all that time. Life is too short to wait, but it is not too short for patience.
Patience is much easier, perhaps even pleasant, to exercise if one truly understands that it can and does deliver much better outcomes, not just for ourselves but for others too. In 2012, researchers at the University of Rochester replicated the marshmallow experiment. However, before doing so, they split the participating children into two groups, exposing one group to unreliable experiences in the form of broken promises, and the other to reliable experiences in the form of honoured promises. They subsequently found that the children exposed to honoured promises waited an average of four times longer than the children exposed to broken promises.
In other words, patience is largely a matter of trust, or, some might say, faith.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.
Mischel W et al. (1972): Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 21(2): 204–218.
J de la Bruyère (1688), Les Caractères, Des jugements, aphorism 108.
Kidd C et al. (2013): Rational snacking: Young children’s decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability. Cognition 126(1):109–114.