Reality Check: The Value of Delayed Gratification

Would you stop drinking all sugary drinks for a year for $500? That’s the offer that one family made to their children.

You could view that as bribery. Or, you could view it as an innovative teaching method. Regardless, one son did in fact skip pop, hot chocolate, and everything else sugary for the year and collected his $500.

My immediate reaction was, “That young lad is going to become a wealthy man!” Why? Not because of the $500, though that’s a nice start. It’s because he has demonstrated that he can weigh “what I want right now” with “what I want in the future.”

While not everyone wants exactly the same things, there are certainly similarities among us. For example, we want satisfying relationships, we want respect or even admiration, we want rewarding employment, and we want the freedom to make our own decisions. We probably want some things as well: houses, cars, money, etc.

However, to actually have many of those things, we may need to put off immediate enjoyment today in exchange for longer term satisfaction in the future. That can be hard to do, because short term gratification is so attractive.

For example, do I want to party tonight or do I want to study? Short-term pleasure versus long-term gain—which do I want more?

The question is important because the reality is that we can’t always have both. We may need to choose!

If what you want is a healthy bank account, you may need to put off buying fun stuff that you don’t really need now in favour of having more wealth later.

If what you want is a healthy waistline, you may need to put off having that snack in favour of a brisk walk.

If what you want is a loving relationship, you may need to give up venting over every little irritation now in favour of remembering the bigger picture.

If what you want is a great career, you may have to put off drinking and carousing in favour of using those hours for work or study.

If what you want are healthy, well-adjusted children, you may need to resist surrendering to their immediate wishes and endure some unpleasantness right now in favour of more mature, resilient development.

If what you want is respect, you may need to change some unprofessional behaviours, such as gossiping, into more responsible habits.

Immediate gratification can give immediate pleasure. Then, just as immediately, it’s gone.

How did the young fella manage to hold off drinking pop for a whole year? He kept thinking about the end result, in his case, the reward money.

When you know what you want in the long term, you can more easily see how your choices contribute (or don’t) to that end result. Knowing your long-term goal can really help when the choice-making gets tough. And it can get tough, because immediate gratification is so compelling.

Is putting off immediate gratification challenging for you? How do you handle it?

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