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Delay of Gratification and Exceptional Marriages

Delaying gratification is linked to happy, long-lasting marriages.

Become a "Two-Marshmallow" Person

Making conscious choices that allow you to live in alignment with your deepest values often requires the ability to delay gratification. In the 1960s, Stanford University researcher Walter Mischel came up with an elegantly simple method that showed the value of the ability to delay gratification. His study subjects were a group of 4-year-old children.

Mischel offered each participant a large, puffy marshmallow, but told them all that if they would wait for him to run an errand, they could have not one, but two, lovely marshmallows. The marshmallow was an excellent choice because it had not only the taste but also the appearance and texture of a delectable treat. The little tykes squirmed in front of their marshmallows like dogs might whimper when told to stay while sitting in front of T-bone steaks dripping with meaty juices.

Some of the 4-year-olds were able to control their impulse to snatch up and consume their marshmallows for the duration of Mischel's 15–20-minute errand (which must have felt like several lifetimes for these 4-year-olds). Others could not.

Mischel followed up with his subjects many years later and found that the ability to control impulses and delay gratification was associated with success in many different areas of life as an adult. For instance, those who delayed gratification were more self-motivated and more persistent in the face of obstacles. On average, they scored 210 points higher on SAT tests.

Those who had quickly consumed the first marshmallow they were offered continued to have impulse-control problems in adulthood. Mischel characterized them as more troubled, stubborn, indecisive, and mistrustful, and less self-confident.[i]

When you have done the work of clarifying your values, it is important to think long-term in setting up your life. For example, instead of pursuing work that pays well now but has no intrinsic reward or personal growth potential, consider investing the time and energy to gain skills that will flower into a stimulating work life for the rest of your career.

When you take the long view of your life, it makes the most sense to become a two-marshmallow person, especially where your deepest values are concerned. Moreover, the traits that line up with good character (patience, self-control, discernment, long-term thinking style) have significant overlap with those that Mischel captured and elucidated in his landmark study.

Being a "two-marshmallow" person is critical in the area of long-term, satisfying relationships. An exceptional marriage is often the result of the union between two individuals who enter the marriage with good character and who continue to shape each other's character in positive ways over time.

I would argue that most of the things that are worth achieving in life require us to delay gratification and to prioritize restraint over indulgence in more primitive drives. The discipline of being a two-marshmallow person can pay off in many ways as you create an interesting life with a well-matched two-marshmallow partner. During the dating phase of a relationship, waiting for a partner who is capable of maintaining a lifelong, happy marriage and enjoying a long courtship with that person to really test mutual compatibility is an adult version of waiting for two marshmallows.

In fact, the question is actually this: Are you willing to wait for a lifelong supply of lovely marshmallows that flow from an exceptional marriage, or do you want to bite down, right now, on something that resembles a marshmallow, but may well turn into a bag of pus once you've committed? (I wonder if this explains why the Spanish word esposas means both "wives" and "handcuffs"?)


[i] Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., and Rodriguez, M. (1989). “Delay of Gratification in Children.” Science, 244, 933-938.

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