Are you fed up hearing that all will be well if you only sacrifice today to the glory of tomorrow?
Delayed gratification seems to be everywhere.
Personal finance bloggers tell us that the key to financial success is delayed gratification.
Money writers tell us that delayed gratification ‘opens the doors to your true goals’.
Even the Business Insider chimes in ‘master delayed gratification and you’ll be a financial god’ band waggon.
Heck, governments have been telling us to learn delayed gratification for the last six years. What else is the ideological basis of the many ‘austerity regimes’?
Yep, you guessed it. Austerity, as an ideological platform for restrictive economic policy and highly damaging social policies, builds on two messages:
a) We have to suffer for the hedonism of the previous regime; and
b) We have to deny ourselves today so that we can consume with abandon again tomorrow.
Delayed gratification, again.
Probably the best example of delayed gratification is religion; all religions except may be Hinduism.
Am I the only one who’s noticed that pictures of Heaven are dripping with excess?
I call BS on delayed gratification because:
- It is, I believe, misunderstood;
- It doesn’t work in the long run; and
- It is the new drug for people of limited means.
Delayed gratification is not what it’s cracked up to be
You know that the term ‘delayed gratification’ comes from psychology research done 40 years ago, right?
Oh, well; never mind. I didn’t either until I decided to read up on it. It’s not that important anyway.
Four things are important about this research, though.
One: It was an experiment conducted with children.
Two: It involved marshmallows. Children were left in a room with marshmallows and asked to wait for the adult to get back before they can have any (cruel, I know). They were allowed to call the adult if they can wait any longer.
Three. If the children called the adult they got one marshmallow. If they waited they got two.
Four. All this fuss was so that psychologists could study willpower.
Where are the misunderstandings?
First and foremost we use willpower to control different levels and strengths of behaviour drivers.
We use it to control impulse – a passing fancy.
We use willpower to control desire – a much more persistent longing.
We use it to control instinct – powerful things, instincts.
And these are increasingly difficult to control using willpower. You can do it with the impulse; it is problematic with desire and it’s next to impossible with instinct.
You want an example? What do you do when you drive and a stone hits your windscreen?
I bet you anything that you close your eyes. Instinct you see; if you were able to control it you’d keep them open.
Second, it would have been great indeed if delayed gratification was as simple as ‘not having what you want now’.
Delayed gratification can mean three things:
- It means that you exercise willpower so you don’t have something at all. For example, I am not going to buy any more shoes.
- It means that you swap having something now for having it – bigger and better – later. For instance, I’m not going to buy this pair of shoes so I can buy a pair of Manolo Blahnik’s or Giuseppe Zanotti’s.
- It means that you don’t have something now so you can have something different – and more important – later. For example, I will exercise restraint and not have any chocolate so that I can look a model.
These are also increasingly difficult to pull off.
Just think about it. How easy is it to resist the taste of smooth, silky, chocolaty energy hit for the distant and uncertain reward of a great body? There is so much doubt and uncertainty between chocolate and beauty perfection.
Delayed gratification doesn’t work
How often do you hear/read stories about people ‘falling off the waggon’?
I hear these stories almost every day.
It can be ‘I was doing so well on this diet till last night I had a large box of chocolates on my own’;
It can be ‘I was really killing my debt until I saw this great holiday in the Caribbean’.
Delayed gratification doesn’t work because:
#1. Willpower fails.
Because when the desire is still with us we need constant willpower to keep it at bay.
Because there is too much temptation to stoke our desire and this takes us into ‘willpower overload’.
Because when we target ‘gratification’ and let desire be we feel deprived. How long do you think you can last when you feel deprived and there is temptation everywhere? Be honest.
I’m a bit like Oscar Wilde in this: I can resist anything but temptation.
#2. Desire grows
Do you remember that if children could wait till the adult came back in the room they got two marshmallows?
At first, this looks like a simple reward.
It isn’t. When you leave desire to fester you may need much more to satisfy it. (I’m not going to give you an example of that only because all my sons read my blog and it’s not a good idea to write about carnality).
This is why, many people live extremely frugally for some time and then just completely lose it and go on a crazy mad spending spree.
Do you want that? Then don’t believe that delayed gratification will bring you financial success.
#3. Life is for living
Protestantism was good for humanity: we owe it science and technological progress.
Protestantism also goes with the ideology that somehow suffering in life has the moral high ground.
And this is BS. Suffering is just that: suffering.
For a fulfilled, great life we all need some pleasure in it. Delayed gratification is in the way of pleasure.
I’d rather go with controlled hedonism.
#4. You can’t have everything but you can have anything
Did you get this one?
This is about understanding what is important in your life and gratifying these desires.
Delayed gratification is ‘opium for the masses’
This need a bit more explaining.
Karl Marx used the phrase ‘opium for the masses’ about religion; he meant that as something that make disadvantaged people feel better in the short term without changing their conditions.
When something is ‘opium for the masses’ it also detracts from actively pursuing change of circumstance.
Delayed gratification is ‘opium for the masses’ because it makes people with limited means feel good when they exercise control and keeps them away from changing their circumstances.
And you know what? If you have limited means you want with passion more things. Delayed gratification, not succumbing to desire and self-control become really hard to enact.
Did you think that I’m for hedonistic abandonment and unrestrained consumerism?
Think again. You know me better than that.
I believe we should control our desires, or our ‘wants’. I believe that we should aim to restrain our consumption – we all do too much of it in the developed world anyway.
I just don’t believe that delaying the gratification of a desire is the way to achieve it.
To resist temptation, things have to stop being a temptation.
To control spending, master your wants!
This not that hard; you just have to learn to know whether what you want is a passing fancy and when it is a deep desire.
Then allow yourself some of what you desire (given it doesn’t harm anyone).
And strange things start happening.
Four years ago, I developed an exercise to do that. It turned out that my true desires are very few: books, writing and electronics.
And you know what? I haven’t succumbed to temptation when buying shoes, jewellery, handbags or clothes.
I can also control better my lust for electronics.
You should try it and here is how.