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.”

So if you want to be able to resist those expensive new (unnecessary) shoes staring you in the face you’ve got to call on the slower pre-frontal cortex, a relatively newer part of the brain evolution-wise. “That’s the part responsible for executive function, planning, self-discipline and dutifulness,” explains Pychyl. “That’s where delayed gratification is processed.” (Potentially saving us a lot of money, calories and perhaps regrets.)

“We’re quick to react to the world with our emotions because evolutionarily speaking that’s what has kept us alive. It made us react when there was a tiger hiding in the bushes,” says Pychyl. “But that response comes with big liabilities in the modern world. Our Stone Age emotional fast brain isn’t equipped for modern life. Now what gives us the big rewards is delayed gratification.”

In our high-consumption culture plagued by climbing debt-to-income ratios, as well as rising obesity rates it’s easy to see how mastering delayed gratification (think self control) would come in handy.

So how do you replace the now with the wow – the bigger reward that delayed gratification promises?

Here’s what Pychyl suggests:

Mindfulness meditation: This helps weaken the connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain and strengthens your ability to engage executive function. “You take a non-judgemental approach to your emotions; you recognize them but don’t judge them. It’s all about learning how to put the attention where it belongs – but it does take practice. Mindful meditation strengthens your metaphoric intention muscles.”

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.

“Everything in life is a balance. But I always define happiness as the achievement of one’s valued goals. Short-term pursuits are specious quite often and don’t often amount to much in the long run. When we can delay gratification we’re more likely to be successful in our long-term pursuits, which are often the most meaningful pursuits.”