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Delayed Gratification in the Digital Age

Understanding our mobile technology use can be key for our longer-term happiness

Key points

  • The ancient philosopher Epicurus held that genuine happines requires the ability to delay gratification.
  • In the digital age, we are increasingly nudged by technologies towards seeking out short-term satisfactions.
  • Psychological research finds that those who use mobile technology more frequently are less likely to delay gratification.
Keng Ho Toh/Dreamstime
Checking and posting using mobile devices
Source: Keng Ho Toh/Dreamstime

"Empty Desires" and the Path to More Genuine Happiness

The ancient philosopher Epicurus was committed to empiricism, the view that our knowledge comes from our senses and can be tested against other empirical experiences. This is the view that underlies what has come to be contemporary science. As part of his philosophy, Epicurus made various influential claims about human happiness which have stood the test of time.

One of his insights was that widely-held views about what makes life most satisfying can be mistaken. Many of us are captivated by "empty" desires, including desires for fame, wealth, and power. Satisfying these desires can be enjoyable. But this kind of enjoyment is not what really matters for happiness.

The problem is that these empty desires are not bound by any limit. No matter how much we get, it is still possible to have and to want more.

The pleasure of genuine happiness, on the other hand, is a "static" pleasure that is stable and lasting. It arises from deeper friendships and the activities that we pursue because we authentically find them to be rewarding and interesting.

To attain such happiness, we must develop and exercise an ability to delay gratification. In doing so, we set aside the near-term enjoyment of satisfying empty desires in favor of developing the capacity for longer-lasting pleasures in life.

Delayed Gratification in the Digital Age

In the digital age, the kinds of obstacles we face in our efforts to be happy are similar in some ways to the obstacles we have always faced. But there are also important differences.

As writer and computer scientist Jaron Lanier points out in his book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, new digital technologies can bring about the modification of behavior on a large scale. The result seems to be that users are nudged in subtle and compelling ways towards seeking out short-term satisfactions such as likes and positive comments.

Psychological research is helping us better to understand the ways in which people interact with digital technologies. Such understanding is going to be an essential part of figuring out how we can be as happy as possible as the digital age unfolds.

For instance, researchers at Temple University devised a study whose aim was to better understand the connections between delayed gratification and smartphone use. The researchers administered questionnaires and cognitive tests to 91 undergraduate students.

The researchers asked study participants about their daily use of mobile social media applications, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, and Snapchat. They were asked how often they post public status updates, how often they check their phones for new activity, and how often they find themselves checking their phones during conversations or when hanging around with friends.

To find out which of the study participants were most likely to delay gratification, the researchers asked them to make hypothetical choices between a smaller sum of money offered right away, versus an increasingly large sum of money offered at six different time delays. These delays ranged from one day to one year. At the one-year point, the participant could receive the maximum sum, $1000.

Those with higher mobile technology engagement - with more frequent posting and checking - were found to be less likely to delay gratification in favor of larger, later rewards.

In analyzing the results, researchers were able to draw a further, interesting conclusion. They found that impulse control was a significant mediator of the relationship between technology engagement and delayed gratification. Mobile technology habits associated with lower tendencies to delay gratification seem to be driven by uncontrolled impulses.

Knowing When to Put Down the Phone

Knowing about such connections between mobile technology use, impulse control, and delayed gratification is important to us all as we try to understand how best to create satisfying lives in the present age.

And those who struggle with impulse control have a particularly strong reason to keep in mind Epicurus' point about the benefits of seeking static rather than empty, near-term pleasures. It is best to put down the phone if using it is only bringing temporary, uneasy satisfactions.

It is also true that younger generations are becoming habituated to digital technology early in their lives. This may increasingly become a primary means of their socialization. The digital generations of the future will need help to develop impulse control. Otherwise, they may discover that they are utterly lost in their attempts to attain happiness in life.

More from Bradley Murray DPhil, MEd
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More from Bradley Murray DPhil, MEd

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