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The Marshmallow Experiment

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Monday, November 21, 2011

Most people know or have heard about the famous "Stanford Marshmallow Experiment" right? The one where they offered children one marshmallow now or a number of marshmallows later to study variations in delayed gratification? If you haven't heard about it, here's the Wiki link about it - it's worth a read:

Every so often, one of my Sparkfriends writes a blog that doesn't just hit home with me, but keys off a sequence of connect-the-dots behaviour in my head that leads me to some profound realization about myself and some of my most current struggles. And isn't that what we love about this community? Today's AHA Moment comes courtesy of WYND10's blog about coming back to Spark after getting "happy" - I'm so happy she's back and I'm SO happy she's happy. Here's the link to her blog:

But here's where the two above paragraphs overlap. How much of our life happiness is based on delayed gratification and how much is based on instant gratification? Because if I'm like anyone else here, my gratification scale is way out of balance.

I don't know how I would have performed in that marshmallow experiment as a kid, but based on my mother's story of me eating all of the chocolate almonds I was sent home with to sell when I was in kindergarten, I'm going to assume that I would have eaten the damn marshmallow. I'm an instant gratification addict. I have learned delayed gratification over the years, but I'll be the first to tell you that it is absolutely NO FUN. Thankfully, unlike some of the participants in the study who were also instant-gratifiers, I got good grades in school, have managed to pay off my student loans, and have never become addicted to smoking or drugs. But food? - that's another issue all-together.

And like WYND10 asks - why is it so much harder to delay gratification when you're already happy? I think this is due to the method of thinking that more of a good thing can't possibly be bad - right? So when we're happy, it's easier to replace our system of delayed gratification with shorts bursts of instant appeal. Maybe I'm taking the analogy too far. But what happens when that "happy" is because we've accepted another person into our lives like she and I both recently have? Here's my response to her blog, which gets to another matter I've been meaning to talk about for a while now:

"OK - so I'm in exactly the same place you are right now. Except, I wouldn't blame this on being happy anymore like I might have in the past. Here's the therapy talk that I'm still trying to work through myself but that I know holds SO much weight (both literally and figuratively):

When we add another person (or thing, like a new job) into our lives we slowly start to lose sight of ourselves because loving and living and being for that other person/thing becomes who we are. It's second nature for us - negating ourselves and our goals and aspirations in order to better serve everyone else in our lives. We call it happy because it feels good - for the time being. But eventually it won't feel good anymore. And then we start to get angry and resent the other people/things in our lives because they prevent us from being and caring for ourselves and we start to remember and long for the days before the "happy" came along when we had control over things.

So the ONLY way to prevent the unhappy from creeping back in is to maintain YOU. And that is NOT at all easy. Because it means standing up for yourself 100% of the time. It means turning down food when hubby wants to order in, it means insisting on exercise when all you want to do is cuddle on the couch, it means speaking up when something doesn't feel right or you don't like something about your partner, or your boss, or your job situation. And keeping in mind that all of these things are NOT to deprive you of the "happy" but to keep you in it long term. This is not eating the marshmallow because you get a whole bag of marshmallows later if you wait."

I want my cake and I want to eat it too. And I can have it. Really, seriously. But it means adhering to the slow bake approach. It's not a matter of denying yourself the cake, but about eating small pieces of cake over a LONG period of time (or about saying no to small pieces of cake over a short period of time). And I think we all need an injection of this attitude right before we hit the holidays. It's not about denying yourself Christmas (or Thanksgiving or Hanukkah or birthdays or cake or cookies or pie or anything else that you might be feeling deprived of my taking a pass on it or saying no). It's about having 10, 15, 20 more years of your life to celebrate these amazing events. Because eating that marshmallow this year seriously could deny me eating 20 more marshmallows spread over the next 20 years of my life.

For me this works for food binging, money binging (stressed out shopping spree anyone?), saving for my retirement, and many, many other areas of my life in which the need for instant gratification is currently hurting my long-term life goals. I refuse to sink into the "happy" right now and risk not having it 20 years from now. And my partner needs to be the type of person that understands that about me. Or ultimately, we're not going to work. However, just saying that is me being afraid that he won't understand, when really, being myself is all he really wants from me anyway. Setting up future happiness isn't about not being happy right now, it's about balancing both.

Good things are right in front of you, but good things also come to those who wait (and due to inflation, they sometimes come in larger quantities later). So think about all the short term changes you could make right now to ensure long term happiness. It's about YOU, not about the marshmallow sitting in front of you on the table. Instant happiness (the thing that you feel right now, the sensation you get when you gobble down the marshmallow) is not the goal. It is fleeting and will eventually go away unless you commit to continuing to do the work to hang on to it. The goal is sustained happiness: a perfect balance of short bursts of joy, long-term planning, and believing that you can and will have everything that you deserve and desire in time.
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