The Power of Delayed Gratification
Can delayed gratification actually make us happier? Here, how to put off the ‘now’ satisfaction for the ‘wow’ satisfaction
Is it our fast-paced, instant-focused world that makes us so quick to give in to temptation – to want what we want right now?
Like the new car we can’t really afford. Or those new shoes we don’t actually need. Or that plate of donuts we know is going to hijack our diet.
Apparently not. It’s more about how our brains work – and how we work our brains.
“We’re just wired this way. We’re all wired this way,” says Tim Pychyl, a Professor of Psychology at Ottawa’s Carleton University and an expert on procrastination and its bedfellow, delayed gratification.
He explains: “The limbic system is the oldest part of our brain and it’s something we share with most other creatures,” says Pychyl. “You can call it the emotional brain or the fast brain. It’s very old evolutionarily. It reacts to the world as the ‘fight or flight’ brain.” And part of that limbic system includes the amygdala, very small, almond-shaped parts that are central to emotions and survival.
“If you’re reacting strongly with your amygdala, you’re trying to make yourself feel better now,” he explains. “We all have a six-year-old alive and well inside of us saying, ‘I want it now!’ That’s just the dominance of the limbic system.”
Value affirmation: “Willpower is like a muscle that gets quickly exhausted,” says Pychyl. “So you need to replenish it with value affirmation.” What that means is you keep reminding yourself why you need to delay gratification and resist the quick, feel-good-now option. For example, you see a beautiful little sports car you’d love to buy but you resist because you’re saving to take the whole family on a special vacation, which you’ve been planning for a long time. “Sure, I’d like that car now, but I know it would affect my ability to pay for the holiday – which I want more. It’s about keeping your attention where you want it to be and not becoming a victim of all your fleeting thoughts, desires and emotions.”
Wait 24 hours: “Once the fast brain response goes away you’ll see things differently,” promises Pychyl. But what if something actually requires an instant decision? “Those situations are few and far between and most of the time things can wait,” he says. “What we often do is use that perceived urgency to justify a lot of bad decisions.”
So can delayed gratification actually make us happier? Perhaps, says Pychyl.