What happens when we can’t do what we want right now? It’s natural to feel angry, frustrated or resentful. Your power to handle disappointment well is a benefit of delayed gratification.
When something blocks us from something that matters to us, it’s natural to get derailed for a moment. Yet some people recover more quickly than others.
They get back on track and refocus on what’s important. What’s the difference? Persistence and resilience come in part from delayed gratification. Delayed gratification is a common trait found among the most successful people. It isn’t something we’re born with — but it’s learnable.
What is Delayed Gratification?
Delayed gratification is the ability to endure something difficult gracefully, to later achieve something worthwhile. In a culture that practically forbids discomfort, it’s a valuable skill. It helps us calmly work toward something important, develop excellence, or reach a personal goal, for example.
Delayed gratification allows us to persist calmly through tough situations.
- It helps us put enough effort into relationships to make them strong, healthy and safe.
- We can control our impulses long enough to understand our pain and learn how to take better care of ourselves.
- It helps us fulfill our commitments and our dreams.
The Cost of Instant Gratification
Instant gratification feels wonderful. But it has its drawbacks. What are signs we could benefit from delayed gratification skills? Closets fill to overflowing. A decluttering expert becomes a celebrity. Family members clash over generosity, gratitude and self-discipline. Parents worry about raising ungrateful children:
“My child is never satisfied.”
“My child always wants more. Is my child a spoiled brat?”
“My teenager is constantly asking for things. How do we deal with an entitled mentality?”
“Our family values are not about consuming. But somehow we have a lot of stuff. My kids expect more. And when they don’t get it, they get angry.”
Many parents learned to wait for a birthday or holidays to get special items when they were young. But to their kids, the idea of waiting for Christmas or Hanukkah seems archaic. Parents worry that their children don’t share values of waiting, or have become too materialistic.
On the other hand, kids feel frustrated when they can’t get the clothes or the latest thing that helps them fit in socially. It’s a natural – especially for adolescents – to rely on appearances and having the “right” stuff to establish where they belong.
Benefits of Delayed Gratification: The Marshmallow Study
Frustration tolerance is a really important skill to have at any age because life doesn’t always go as we planned.
Delaying gratification fosters self-control and emotional self-regulation. These skills enhance one’s ability to thrive throughout life.
You may have heard of the marshmallow experiment. This study, first published in 1972, revealed a surprising link between a child’s ability to delay gratification and success later in life.
In the 1960s, psychology researcher Walter Mischel began studying 4 and 5-year-old children for their ability to wait for a treat. He brought each of the children into a room, sat them at a table, and had a researcher place a marshmallow in front of them. The researcher explained he would step out for a while (15 minutes). If the child could wait without eating the marshmallow, the child could have two when the researcher returned.
Some children promptly ate the marshmallow. Others waited a few minutes. And some held off until the researcher came back, and earned two marshmallows.
The surprising results emerged over the next decades. Researchers observed that children who could delay gratification were later more likely to have higher SAT scores, and lower rates of substance abuse, obesity, and adverse responses to stress. They achieved better results by many other measures of success as well.
Our capacity for delayed gratification seems critical to our wellbeing and success in life.
But why can some children delay gratification better than others?
Experience Shapes the Capacity for Frustration Tolerance
It turns out that life experience and environment have a huge impact on frustration tolerance. A University of Rochester study altered the marshmallow experiment. It compared how a consistent or inconsistent environment might impact the ability to wait.
One group of children experienced a consistent, reliable environment (a promise kept) right before the marshmallow offer. These children were more likely to wait for the greater reward. The other group had an inconsistent or unreliable experience (a broken promise) before the marshmallow challenge. These children were less likely to delay eating the treat they were sure of. That’s understandable given what just happened.
How to Benefit From Frustration
Delayed gratification studies show that important information can come from our response to frustration. It prompts questions like: How well do I handle discomfort? What’s making me so annoyed or frustrated? Is it something I can control? Do I trust these people with my needs? What will happen if I just ride the wave until it passes?
If we tend to act to get what we want instantly, we may miss important opportunities. Through challenges, we may gain skills and knowledge about ourselves that build a stronger sense of self-esteem.
More Benefits of Delaying Gratification
Frustration tolerance can help a person discover new strengths, for example:
- Discomfort may be tolerable. It may pass sooner than expected. It may take between a few moments to an hour.
- Listening to self-talk may reveal something important. What kind of self-talk is happening? Am I buying into someone else’s narrative about my value?
- Exploring wants may uncover important needs. Do I want something because without it, I’m worried I’ll be rejected or left behind? What do I really need?
- How to belong is a choice. Do I really need to change my looks or possessions to be accepted? Am I giving others in my life enough credit?
- Being mindful about friendship is an option. What is it about a certain relationship that’s so important? Is this really a friendship that will be good for me?
Life doesn’t always turn out the way we want it to. That can be terribly frustrating. However, feeling that frustration may expose what we really need to make things better.
As a child you may not have had the benefit of consistency. But as an adult, you may find you can give yourself what you need. By managing what you can control – how you take care of yourself – you can build other strengths and skills to make things better.
How Therapy Can Help
Therapy is a safe space to examine frustration and other experiences you may want to respond to differently.
In therapy we can:
- Honor feelings
- Validate and witness emotions
- Hold feelings long enough to explore different responses
- Develop skills to cope with challenging thoughts and emotions
- Find good questions to ask yourself to understand your experiences
- Take time to consider how feelings may change in the future
In a world that celebrates immediate gratification, we all need to question what serves us best. Society insists we escape stress, with urgency not to be left behind. Without frustration tolerance, we can’t know how else to react other than go along, or resent feeling held back. When we recognize that frustration happens, we can accept these feelings as normal and let them pass. This perspective allows us to make intentional decisions in line with our values.
When our lives overflow with stuff, what is happening? After a point, consuming things can only approximate love, nurturing and healthy parenting. Connecting with ourselves becomes increasingly important to feel a sense of peace with our decisions.
It’s so easy to get caught up in thinking more is better, and now is best. The trouble comes when we remain frenzied and forget to slow down.
Therapy is an opportunity to clarify what you value, who you are, and the life you want.
Do you wonder how our instant gratification culture is training you and your loved ones to think and act? The ability to delay gratification can empower you to refocus, and reclaim the story of what matters in your life.