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What is Delayed Gratification and Why is it Important?

Danielle Dahl, Lead Contributor

My husband always seems to have a way of illustrating delayed gratification to our children, and it always sounds like a “back in my day” story.

It will go something like, “I couldn’t just listen to my favorite song whenever I wanted to, I had to call the radio station and request it.”

Most people think of instant and delayed gratification in these terms, but what does the term actually mean? Is it actually important that we understand the true meaning?

Delayed gratification can add so much value to your life, that I think it is essential to understand what it is.

“Don’t give up what you want most for what you want now.” – Richard G. Scott

What is delayed gratification?

Britannica defines delayed gratification as “the act of resisting an impulse to take an immediately available reward in the hope of obtaining a more-valued reward in the future. The ability to delay gratification is essential to self-regulation, or self-control.”

Having to wait for things like your favorite song to come on the radio, the next episode of your TV show or an activity you want to participate in does delay gratification but it is missing a key part of the definition. Merely having to wait for something does not mean you are practicing delayed gratification.

A better example would be knowing that the next episode of the show you are streaming is available, but you choose to put off watching it because there is a “more valued future reward.”

If you choose to not watch the show and instead get some work done on a big project for work, then you would be exercising delayed gratification.

Sure, watching the show will bring you gratification at the moment, but doing the less fun activity of work might bring you more money, a promotion, or other new opportunities.

The key element here is that you deny an impulse. You could grab some fast food after work and meet your need for nourishment, or you could go home and put together a healthy meal. A healthy meal delays your desire for instant food, but it is undoubtedly better for you in the long run.

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“Self-discipline is often disguised as short-term pain, which often leads to long-term gains. The mistake many of us make is the need and want for short-term gains (immediate gratification), which often leads to long-term pain.” – Charles F. Glassman

How delaying gratification benefits you

Delaying gratification is actually a cognitive skill that can help you in your quest for personal growth. Kendra Cherry points out that delayed gratification is a form of self-control, or more importantly self-regulation.

Researchers have found that this ability is not just an important part of goal achievement, but it might also have a major impact on long-term life success and overall well-being.

There are physical and psychological benefits to delaying gratification. Delayed gratification can lead to better overall physical health because you are more likely to resist unhealthy habits, eat healthier foods, work out, and not indulge in alcohol often.

The psychological benefits are numerous too, and include:

  • Experiencing genuine happiness instead of immediate short term pleasure
  • Accomplish goals which lead to feelings of security
  • Improved self-control and discipline

Delaying gratification just might be one of the best things you can do to live a happier and healthy lifestyle.

“Rule your mind or it will rule you.” – Horace

Challenges associated with delayed gratification

Why do people resist delayed gratification and give in to their impulses despite knowing that delaying gratification is usually the better answer?

Well, we are all human, and when we want things we tend to want them now. Society has also made it very easy for us to get what we want when we want it.

While my husband’s responses to our children might not be exact examples of delayed gratification, they did teach us the art of patience and waiting for things we want. It was easier for us to make the choice to put off something fun and work on something that needed doing because we were used to patience.

In today’s environment, almost everything is instant. When we are hungry we can get food fast. Bored? No problem, we can watch an entire series on Netflix without having to wait for the following new episode to air. We don’t even have to rewind a movie when we watch it anymore.

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These things are not inherently bad, in fact, progress and technology is amazing! However, our children have not learned the same level of patience and comfort with boredom as previous generations.

Another challenge to convincing ourselves that delayed gratification is good for us is that sometimes you really have no way of knowing what a future reward will look like. You could assume that not going out with your friends and working on a project at work might get you a promotion, but you don’t really know that for sure.

Eating healthy is better for you obviously, but you could make healthy food choices and not see the results on your scale right away. This type of discouragement can make it difficult to delay the things we want that are right in front of us and feel like a sure thing. We know donuts taste good, and hanging out with our friends is more fun than work!

“To become grateful, I must learn that I can handle disappointment and delayed gratification with grace and perseverance. This is why practices such as fasting and simplicity are such powerful tools for transformation. The experience of frustration and disappointment is irreplaceable in the development of a grateful heart.”  John Ortberg

How can we get better at delayed gratification?

There are small steps we can take in our everyday lives that will help increase our ability to delay gratification. The first strategy is avoidance. 

By avoiding the need to override our impulses we create fewer opportunities for having to delay gratification. In turn, we deplete our energy resources less, because let’s face, it having to actively choose something that we don’t really want is hard!

Carrot stick or donut? I don’t know about you but I would rather have the donut… However, if my fridge is stocked with grapes, carrots, and celery sticks, and there are no donuts… the choice becomes much easier.

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Planning ahead for things, and being able to avoid something when the impulse strikes is a great tool for learning to be better at delayed gratification.

The next thing we can do is learn to de-emphasize unhealthy rewards and emphasize those rewards that are good for us. Rewards are only rewarding because of the behaviors or feelings we get from them.

Learning which behaviors lead to perceived rewards puts you back in control and will help with learning to delay gratification.

Spending money on new things when you have had a bad day, might make you feel good at the moment, but not so much when the credit card statement comes.

What activities could you do that will give you that same ‘pick me up’ and euphoric feeling?

Taking a kickboxing class will also get those endorphins going, and make you feel better. Behaviors that mimic or induce the same feelings in a healthy way can put off the impulse and aid in delayed gratification.

“The gratification comes in the doing, not in the results.” – James Dean

None of this is easy

This is one of those times when things are much easier said than done, especially because most of us are not used to delaying the things we want.

However, the benefits to physical and mental health, make it a challenge you might want to undertake.

There is no crystal ball, to prove for sure that sacrificing now will pay off in the end, but even if it doesn’t these steps will help you grow as a person. Then the next time you make a choice to delay gratification the results could have a major impact.

We can’t win them all, and not every instance of delayed gratification will work out the way we expect. However, learning to self-regulate better will always be a worthwhile endeavor.

Let us know your thoughts on delayed gratification, and some techniques that work for you in the comment section below.

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