The way I see it, there are two paths we can take in any given situation: one is the path of avoiding pain in the moment, and the other is the more difficult path of delaying pleasure for a bigger purpose.
Our cultural norms encourage us to seek Band-Aid solutions and temporary comforts—basically, whatever it takes to ease our discomfort now. This is apparent in the prevalence of casinos, commercials for psychiatric medications, and get rich quick schemes in our culture.
Some people don’t see the value in having patience during difficult times or working toward a goal; they want to lose the weight now and would rather buy the latest, greatest cell phone than save for retirement. We often make our life choices according to how we can avoid pain in the moment and, in doing so, fail to see that the path of delayed gratification is sometimes where the real solutions to our problems lie.
There’s a term in Freudian psychoanalysis known as the pleasure principle, which is the instinctual seeking of pleasure and avoidance of pain in order to satisfy biological and psychological needs. According to Freud, the pleasure principle is the driving force guiding the id, the most basic part of ourselves.
Freud compared the pleasure principle to the concept of the reality principle, which explains the ability to delay gratification when a situation doesn’t call for immediate gratification. Whether it’s saving for that future dream house, choosing a healthy lifestyle now to stay healthy as you age, or putting up with a difficult job to help boost your career for the long-term, delayed gratification can yield tremendous returns while helping you develop a tolerance for waiting.
According to Freud, the id rules the behavior of infants and children by only satisfying the pleasure principle; there is no thinking ahead for the greater purpose. Children seek immediate gratification, aiming to satisfy cravings such as hunger and thirst, and seeking whatever they want in the moment to ease their discomfort.
Pleasure is central to our survival. We need things like food, water, and sex in order to survive and pass our genetic material on to the next generation. However, as we get older and mature, we must learn to tolerate the discomfort of delayed gratification if we have a greater purpose or goal in mind.
Unlike infants and young children, adults are characterized by their ability to delay gratification and tolerate hard work, discipline, and occasional unpleasantness in order to fulfill responsibilities and achieve goals. Mature adults don’t expect others to meet their needs. They understand and accept that they won’t always be gratified.
Regardless of what our developmental stages dictate, most adults have a complicated relationship with pleasure. We spend considerable time and money pursuing pleasure now instead of delaying gratification for a greater reward later. It’s complicated, because certain types of pleasure are accorded special status, such as wearing the latest fashion or driving a limited edition car.
Some of our most important rituals—such as praying, listening to music, dancing, and meditating—produce a kind of transcendent pleasure that’s become part of our culture. In this way, feeling good in the immediate term isn’t such a bad thing. It’s provided us with an opportunity to survive and experience some relief from our stress.
But what happens when you want to be instantly satisfied in all areas of your life? What happens when you only avoid pain? What results from needing to have the newest and most expensive car, even though you’re in horrible credit card debt?
Living for a purpose becomes impossible at that point, because a life spent avoiding pain doesn’t result in goals getting accomplished. It might be an easier life in the short term, but it won’t necessarily be a better life in the long run. When we live in pursuit of immediate pleasure—needing to have the newest gadget or accessories the moment they’re available, or wanting the perfect job without getting an education or working our way up from the bottom—we become just like toddlers again, completely incapable of delaying gratification.
Benefits of Delayed Gratification
Studies show that delayed gratification is one of the most effective personal traits of successful people. People who learn how to manage their need to be satisfied in the moment thrive more in their careers, relationships, health, and finances than people who give in to it.
Being able to delay satisfaction isn’t the easiest skill to acquire. It involves feeling dissatisfied, which is why it seems impossible for people who haven’t learned to control their impulses. Choosing to have something now might feel good, but making the effort to have discipline and manage your impulses can result in bigger or better rewards in the future. Over time, delaying gratification will improve your self-control and ultimately help you achieve your long-term goals faster.
A well-known study conducted at Stanford University in the 1960s explains a lot about why it’s beneficial to delay gratification. In the study, children were placed in a room with one marshmallow on a plate. The lead researcher gave the children an easy instruction: You can eat the marshmallow now, or wait 15 minutes and receive two marshmallows. The researchers found that the children who were able to wait for the second marshmallow without eating the first one scored higher on standardized tests, had better health, and were less likely to have behavior problems.
Consider the results of this study, and think about yourself and your actions. Are you able to wait for things you really want, even if it involves sacrificing pleasure and satisfaction now? Do you make decisions based on your life purpose or on what feels good now? Do you sometimes give up too soon? Can you think of a time when you accomplished a difficult task? How did it make you feel about yourself? What were the results of waiting?
The tolerance you exhibit when waiting for something you want says a lot about you. If there’s something you want to buy, will you save now to pay with cash later, or pay with a credit card now and pay yourself back later? If you started school or own your own business and aren’t seeing the rewards yet, will you keep going or give up when the going gets tough?
Think about it: The things in life that bring us immediate gratification, like food, drugs, gambling, sex, screaming from anger, or using our credit cards don’t necessarily bring out the best in us. They just ease our discomfort for the moment.
Delaying gratification isn’t a new concept. Back in 300 B.C., Aristotle saw that the reason so many people were unhappy was that they confused pleasure for true happiness.
True happiness, according to Aristotle, is about developing habits and surrounding yourself with people who grow your soul. This allows you to move towards your greatest potential. True happiness entails delaying pleasure, and putting in the time, discipline, and patience required to achieve a goal instead of feeling good now.
A life of purpose, aligned with the seeking of true happiness, creates real joy. It keeps your happiness meter pretty steady throughout your life. So, which path would you like to take?