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How Instant Gratification Can Lead to Dissatisfaction

Delayed gratification and higher life satisfaction may go hand in hand.

Key points

  • Instant gratification may seem like the quickest way to boost happiness and increase life satisfaction, but it's not.
  • Accumulating evidence suggests that having the ability to delay gratification is associated with higher levels of life satisfaction.
  • Delayed gratification makes people feel more in control of their lives, which goes hand in hand with life satisfaction.
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In the Rolling Stones' song "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," Mick Jagger makes references to 1960s marketing campaigns that tried to persuade men to smoke cigarette brands that would make them seem more like a "man's man." Yet smoking cigarettes didn't seem to satisfy Jagger, who belted out the lyrics, "I can't get no satisfaction. 'Cause I try, and I try, and I try, and I try. But I can't get no satisfaction."

Today, the 78-year-old legend seems to find satisfaction in living a healthier lifestyle. A recent Vogue article about Jagger's athleticism and eating habits notes that his workout regimen involves a mix of running, cycling, kickboxing, honing his posture, yoga, pilates, balance exercises, and ballet lessons. He also eats a healthy diet that consists primarily of fruits, vegetables, legumes, lean proteins, and whole grains.

Accumulating evidence suggests that Mick's got it right: Healthy lifestyle habits—which often involve delayed gratification—and higher levels of life satisfaction seem to go hand in hand.

The Role of Delayed Gratification in Life Satisfaction

A recent study found that one way to get more satisfaction out of life may be to avoid instant gratification by making healthier lifestyle choices such as not smoking, drinking less alcohol, eating more fruits and vegetables (F&V), and staying physically active. This peer-reviewed paper (Gschwandtner, Jewell, & Kambhampati, 2021) by a trio of UK-based researchers from the University of Kent and the University of Reading was recently published in the Journal of Happiness Studies.

To measure study participants' ability to delay gratification and forego immediate satisfaction for the sake of reaping long-term rewards, the researchers had respondents answer survey questions related to self-control, such as "I would have a hard time sticking with a special, healthy diet (reverse coded)" and "I have always tried to eat healthy because it pays off in the long run."

The researchers focused on healthy lifestyle habits as an index of delayed gratification and found that people who ate more F&V and stayed physically active also self-reported higher levels of life satisfaction.

Of course, these findings are correlative. Feeling satisfied in life could also be a catalyst for increasing someone's odds of making healthier lifestyle choices. That said, the ability to delay gratification makes people feel that daily life is within their locus of control. Feeling like you are the ruler of your destiny boosts confidence and subjective well-being.

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Delayed Gratification Makes People Feel in Control

Notably, the researchers found that scoring higher on delayed gratification tests was associated with individuals also feeling like they had more control over their lives. As the authors explain:

"Delaying gratification may influence both F&V consumption and life satisfaction by enabling individuals to feel they have control over their lives. Individuals with an 'internal' as opposed to an 'external' locus of control are more likely to have healthy habits such as eating well and exercising regularly, drinking moderately, and avoiding tobacco."

"There has been a bigger shift in recent years towards healthier lifestyle choices," co-author Uma Kambhampati said in a September 2021 news release. "To establish that eating more fruits and vegetables and exercising can increase happiness as well as offer health benefits is a major development. This may also prove useful for policy campaigns around environment and sustainability."

"Behavioral nudges that help the planning self to reinforce long-term objectives are likely to be especially helpful in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. If a better lifestyle not only makes us healthier but also happier, then it is a clear win-win situation," co-author Adelina Gschwandtner concluded.


Adelina Gschwandtner, Sarah Jewell, Uma S. Kambhampati. "Lifestyle and Life Satisfaction: The Role of Delayed Gratification." Journal of Happiness Studies (First published: August 20, 2021) DOI: 10.1007/s10902-021-00440-y