In today’s essay I am going to explain the concept of delayed gratification and how it can change your approach to many things in life, especially the things that matter such as:
As we will see, today’s consumerist society emphasises instant gratification above everything else to the detriment of life’s better pleasures.
The key to my approach, which I think differentiates it from many others, is to experience the pleasure of the delaying pleasure. The aim is to turn delayed gratification into a daily habit with the end goal of achieving instant gratification from delayed gratification. If that sounds slightly confusing, don’t worry, we will discuss this at length later on.
The basic philosophy behind delayed gratification is this:
A pleasure delayed is a pleasure enhanced.
I think the major advantage of delayed gratification is that it is an excellent way to weed out the fake pleasures of life from the true. Remember that everything has an opportunity cost if you do one thing, it means you cannot do another and we all know that time is limited so make your choices with careful deliberation.
My aim with this essay is to explain the concept of delayed gratification, expound the benefits, and then offer a step by step approach to incorporate delayed gratification into your life. As an aside, I invite you to bookmark this page for later reading as this is one of my longer essays and perhaps requires several readings to fully comprehend.
Let’s dig a little deeper…
The fountain of knowledge defines delayed gratification thusly:
Delayed gratification, or deferred gratification, is the ability to resist the temptation for an immediate reward and wait for a later reward.
In other words, delayed gratification is the act of delaying pleasure in pursuit of a greater, truer pleasure later on.
There are actually two ways you can practice delayed gratification:
- The first is by withholding a pleasure. A smoker may choose not to smoke for a couple of days and then really enjoy a cigarette to the full on the third day, and that cigarette will be so much better than his usual.
- The second way is by doing something unpleasurable. One may choose to do unpleasurable, tough physical exercises with the knowledge that given enough time he will be able to reap the full pleasure of a healthy, functioning body later on.
We will explore both of these methods in detail later on. My sharpest readers may notice that the distinction is not a clear cut one, after all, one could define the act of withholding pleasure unpleasurable, thus meaning the above two points are actually one. While this is technically true, I think it’s easier to separate the two points.
The difference between self-control and delayed gratification
Someone, somewhere said that the best route to self-control is to avoid having to exercise it. Self-disciplined people are happier.
The problem with thinking of delayed gratification in terms of self-control and as a denial of pleasure is that it gives you a reason, albeit a weak one, to falter. If instead of thinking about the self-control required to practice delayed gratification you concentrate on the final reward, you will find yourself much better off.
After all, you are not losing out on anything, quite the opposite. Your goal is to increase the amount of pleasure in life. Perennial self-control is a sorry state of affairs, unlike with delayed gratification, there is no light at the end of the tunnel, you will have to constantly be on your guard to make sure that you don’t “slip up”.
This is exactly why I am a big fan of cheat meals or days in an otherwise healthy lifestyle. Instead of trying to stick to a diet for life and always negating the pleasures, it’s much better to have planned times where you can indulge yourself. This gives you the best of both worlds: you retain the health advantages of a superior lifestyle and diet but you also get to eat some rubbish once in a while. You are far less likely to abandon this entire lifestyle because there is no “failure”, a slip up can just be counted as a cheat meal or day and then you move on. Approach healthy eating from the point of self-control and you end up beating yourself up over every mistake and you are far more likely to fall off the wagon altogether.
The Problem with Society
Why practice delayed gratification? To answer this question perhaps it’s best to explore what happens when you do not practice delayed gratification. I mentioned earlier how we live in a society that promotes instant gratification, so let’s explore this “society of now”.
Before I begin in earnest, I just want to state that I am only going to deal with the problems of society viewed through the prism of a pleasure delayer otherwise this essay would turn into a book, and we would be here all week detailing the large list of things fundamentally wrong with the way we live.
That said, many of the problems in our society, from obesity to credit card debt, can be linked back to the problem of instant gratification.
So what exactly is instant gratification? It’s pretty much what it says on the tin: you are gratifying your pleasure, instantly.
As everything has become faster and more accessible (at least in the Western world) due to technological advances, instant gratification has become more and more widespread in all layers of society. We want it all, and we want it now.
While this gained full momentum from the 1980s, famously known as the “Decade of Indulgence”, onwards, the roots of the problem go back to the dawn of the industrial age when large swathes of the population began to live in cities. The physical proximity to goods meant that the public’s expectations of what they could have, and when they could have it, began to become skewed with reality.
So coming back to the present day, technological advances have come such a long way that we gratify many of our needs with just an internet enabled device. Think one-click ordering via Amazon for your shopping desires, think dating services for your relationship desires, think porn (or booking an escort online) for your sexual needs.
While obviously it’s quite amazing, and, of course, convenient, being able to order something and having it delivered the next morning, there is a darker side to all this.
The culprit is, as usual, the mechanism of Hedonic Adaptation. I’ve written about this before so I will just go ahead and modestly quote myself:
This process of never being satisfied is called Hedonic Adaptation. In a nutshell, no matter what happens to you you will always go back to your “default” level of happiness. Your inner happiness which has nothing to do with the external world. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve just won a large sum of money or lost a leg, after a certain length of time, you will be just as happy as you once were. This insight shoes a glaring deficiency in Western lifestyles. The problem is that we will never be satisfied, no matter how many things we buy, how much sex we have or how many mind altering substances we take.
So what does this have to do with free next day delivery on Amazon or the multitude of pornography on the internet? Well, quite a lot, as it turns out. The very reason all this stuff exists in the first place is because we become dissatisfied with what we had before and so someone went ahead and invented the internet, someone went ahead and founded Amazon and someone else went ahead a built a porn empire. The problem we have today is that all this, and more, is available near-instantly and at any hour of the day. Due to Hedonic Adaptation, we have become addicted to getting what we want quickly. This has seeped into every part of our lives and nowadays we look for shortcuts to everything.
We have fast food, Twitter and Viagra. Everything is easy, everything is now. This has left us weak in our minds and weak in our bodies. If you need proof of our lack of collective willpower, just check on how many New Year resolutions are still intact come February. We have stopped being connoisseurs of the wait, of that lovely feeling of anticipation. We seek the shallow pleasures that are available immediately and so forgo the true pleasures in life, the ones that take time, effort and dedication.
There is nothing wrong with this faster pace of life per se, it’s just when we try and force things along that problems begin to arise. You can’t build a building in six months and tell me that it is as structurally sound as the pyramids in Egypt. You can’t do a one year course in art college and tell me that it’s the same as taking a ten-year apprenticeship with a master painter like in the old days.
The biggest problem of all in this internet age is the amount of overstimulation that our brains receive on a daily basis. If you have ever been away from technology for longer than a week you may well have experienced that inner calm that develops. No Facebook updates, no replying to emails and before you know it you don’t even get the feeling that you are missing out on anything. This experience is so sweet because the reality of normal everyday life is so bitter. The pleasure is in the contrast.
Of course, I don’t recommend that you never reply to an email again (although, come to think about it…). I think that by applying a large pinch of delayed gratification to modern life, we can follow a middle path in which we enjoy all the conveniences of technology without becoming slaves to it.
An example of this would be to use your smartphone to find your way around a new city but not ruining your holiday by being constantly connected and in touch with everyone at home 24/7. Think about this: there is an entire generation growing up who are hardly ever in the “now”, they are constantly communicating with their friends via their smartphones because they are not able to delay the pleasure of socialising, which is one of the best pleasures in life.
Anyway, now that we have analysed the ways in which society is negatively affected by instant gratification, let’s turn our attention back to our initial question:
Why practice Delayed Gratification?
Well, it turns out that not only it prevents us from falling prey to a lot of nasty habits, it can actually improve almost every aspect of our lives.
I am a big fan of working smart, not hard, but there is no getting around the fact that you need to work hard at working smart. Nothing worthwhile having in life comes quickly or easily and delayed gratification teaches us just that. The 10,000-hour rule is a great example of this.
“Without pain, without sacrifice, we would have nothing. Like the first monkey shot into space.”
~ Tyler Durden, Fight Club.
Let’s explore some of the numerous benefits of delayed gratification. In fact, I’ll give you 8 good reasons why you too should become a pleasure delayer:
1. Delayed Gratification Enhances Pleasure.
I guess for most people this is the big one. It’s the light at the end of the tunnel – the big payoff after all the hard work. I don’t actually believe that the aim of life is to seek pleasure, but I don’t reject pleasure if it comes my way. I think it’s a waste of time and human potential to just spend one’s life going from pleasure to pleasure, always hunting for the next big thing. Unfortunately, Enlightened Hedonism is the default life philosophy of almost the entire population of this planet.
I also don’t see anything wrong with accepting the greater of two pleasures, as long as there are no negatives consequences.
The reason delayed gratification enhances pleasure is due to the fact that humans value things that are rare. Think about diamonds, think about gold. They have no intrinsic value, just the mere fact that they are rare means that they are valuable. Delayed gratification is a tool which allows us to turn anything in our lives into pure gold. Don’t believe me? Try not drinking water for a day or two and then ask how much you would pay for a glass of water.
Another reason that delayed gratification makes everything more pleasurable is because you can truly enjoy whatever you have delayed. This is due to a couple of reasons:
- The fact that you earned it. I get this all the time when I am cycling. I enjoy the descent from a mountain not just because it’s fun going at insane speeds on 21mm tyres with the wind in your face, but because I know that by having suffered through climbing the mountain in the first place I have truly earned enjoying the descent. If I had just gone up to the top by car I would lose some of the enjoyment.
- Guilt-free satisfaction. This links up to the above point but expands it. When you delay gratification you create a plan, and when things go according to plan there is no reason to feel guilty. Let’s take my earlier example about eating junk food as an example. If you just give in to all your cravings when they happen, you will probably have some negative feelings about the way you eat. If you take a different approach and eat healthily most of the time, you can plan to have a cheat meal or day where you allow yourself to eat whatever you like. There shouldn’t be any guilty feelings associated with this as it’s part of your plan.
The scientific reason why delayed gratification enhances pleasure has to do with the hormone dopamine, which is released whenever we experience something pleasurable (actually, it’s more complex than that). If we constantly overstimulate ourselves by seeking greater and greater pleasure in life, our brains become desensitised to dopamine and it actually affects our ability to enjoy life. That’s why the first sex you have after a period of abstinence is often the most enjoyable.
A warning: make sure that you are actually delaying gratification and not just delaying something unpleasant: that’s called procrastination.
2. Delayed Gratification is Democratic.
I think the really cool thing about delayed gratification is that it’s completely democratic. Just like the 80/20 rule, it doesn’t matter what colour your skin is, what religion you (don’t) believe in, what country you live in or your economic status. In some ways, delayed gratification discriminates positively, especially on an economic level. The richer you are, the harder it is to practice delayed gratification because you have a far greater number of temptations. In our society, there is a strong correlation between the amount of economic wealth you have how quickly you can have things.
3. Delayed Gratification is Simple.
This is easily overlooked but it’s actually a massive advantage. We all have enough complexity in our lives already.
Let’s take a look:
- It doesn’t take up much, if any, time.
- Delayed Gratification is completely free.
- You don’t have to join any society or have a membership.
- It doesn’t require batteries (I jest).
- If you don’t like it, you can quit at any time.
Let’s explore the first two of these points in more depth.
4. Delayed Gratification does not take up any time.
One good point of delayed gratification is that you can do it any time, any place. It’s not like meditation, you don’t need to set time aside each day to practice delayed gratification. It’s actually better than that: you can practice it 24 hours a day, every day of the week.
Once you master delayed gratification you won’t even have to think about it any longer. It’s just part of the way you live, just like breathing and blinking. That’s a pretty major advantage in my book.
5. Delayed Gratification is completely free.
It doesn’t require a membership to an exclusive club and not only will it save you a ton of money because you will realise that many of your purchases are completely unnecessary, it will also make you much richer in the long term due to your ability to invest that money.
The entire principle of investment actually works on delayed gratification. You put money away now, so you will be able to enjoy more of it later. Of course, as many people have discovered, they payoff is not always guaranteed but it is a bet worth making.
The main reason most people are economically poor is their inability to apply delayed gratification to their finances and to their life. The sacrifice their future options for mindless and unsatisfying pleasures in the present.
Remember, you are already wealthy. Don’t believe me? Read to my essay “How to be Content No Matter What” and jump to the section of wealth. In fact, I will make it even easier and yet again modestly quote myself:
It’s also about discovering the distinction between conventional wealth and real wealth. After all, what is the definition of wealth? Let’s look it up and see if sheds any light on how to be content: “Wealth is the abundance of valuable resources or material possessions. ” And there it is. The answer is staring us straight in the face. Wealth is the abundance of valuable resources or material possessions. That’s the key. Valuable resources. YOU can choose what are your valuable resources. Almost everybody would agree that time is a valuable resource. So why spend so much of it working at a job you hate for money you use to buy stuff you don’t need? This leads me nicely to my next point…
6. Delayed Gratification teaches you to enjoy the simple things in life and to do more with less.
Life itself is amazing and we constantly take it for granted. Going without something can create a true pleasure out of the everyday things we take for granted. Mull over the amazing invention of the internet which allows me to publish these words and for you to read them!
Let’s imagine a man who has stranded in a desert for a couple of days without water, when he gets back to civilisation he will enjoy his first glass of chilled water far more than any glass of water he has ever drunk.
While we happen to be discussing glasses of water, how about the whole “Is the glass half empty or half full?”
The ability to delay gratification will cause you to reevaluate what the important things in life and you might just experience an incredible level of optimism to the point of not only being thankful that the glass is half full, but that glass exists in the first place!
7. Delayed Gratification Increases Willpower.
Having enough willpower to apply delayed gratification is an excellent indicator of how successful you will be in the future. There was an experiment done in 1970 in Stanford University, famously called “The Marshmallow Experiment”. The experiment was quite simple:
A child was offered a choice of one immediate reward, usually a marshmallow or a cookie, or a greater reward, usually two marshmallows or cookies, if they waited approximately fifteen minutes. Less than a third of the children tested were able to delay gratification long enough to enjoy the greater reward.
While this is interesting, it doesn’t really tell us much that we didn’t already know: children like cookies and marshmallows and will generally eat them as quickly as possible given the opportunity. The interesting part is that they did several follow-up studies on the children as they were growing up and they found a high correlation between the minority who could defer gratification and the amount of success they enjoyed. They were smarter and fitter. You can read more about this experiment here.
On the topic of willpower, I have some good news and some bad news:
The bad news is that your willpower is limited. It’s quite possible to “run out” and then give it to various cravings and bad habits. This is exactly the reason why many people have junk for late at night, especially after a tough day. Their willpower has simply run out by that time. A good trick to rely less on willpower alone is to distract yourself from the issue at hand.
The good news is that willpower works very much like a muscle. This means that if you use and place increasingly greater stresses upon it, it will grow to meet the challenge. The flip side to this is that the old rule “use it or lose it” applies.
But let’s not about beat around the bush, delaying gratification can suck, big time. Sometimes using one’s willpower to keep on the straight and narrow can be exhausting. I’ve found that at times, especially the first few days of attempting to form a new habit can be almost paralyzing, I can’t seem to concentrate for extended periods of time.
As time has passed I have found that my willpower has increased exponentially and I almost always do the “right” thing.
8. Delayed Gratification Makes You Stronger.
For me, this is really the reason to practice delayed gratification.
A man [or woman, for that matter] is not truly strong if he has addictions. Just leave him one or two days without being able to get his fix and he will crumble. He may appear strong, but that strength is built on unstable foundations and is likely to crumble at any time. By learning to delay pleasure and occasional going without the things we normally take for granted, we strengthen our foundations and become less dependent on externals. This can do wonders to our physical and psychological health.
This can also help one to gain back control from pre-existing addictions and vices as well as build a character. If you often manage to go without many things in your life, you won’t be that much worse off if one day circumstances conspire to actually take what you have away from you.
I also think that it’s a good way to sharpen one’s rational mind instead of relying on instinct. Animals cannot practice delayed gratification – if you constantly overfeed a cat it will literally eat itself to an early grave. Now that I think about it, quite a lot of people seem to be doing the same – clearly highlighted by the growing problem of obesity in the Western world. Our instincts don’t often serve us correctly in the modern world. I discussed this at length in a previous essay.
Step by Step Guide to becoming a Pleasure Delayer.
Believe me, no civilized man ever regrets a pleasure, and no uncivilized man ever knows what a pleasure is.
~ Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Someone who engages in the practice of delayed gratification is called a pleasure delayer. This term was popularized by the movie Vanilla Sky, featuring Tom Cruise.
Before we jump into how to go about becoming a Pleasure Delayer, let’s us the same tactic as before and turn the question on its head and ask:
Why are most people not Pleasure Delayers?
Make no mistake about it, it’s hard. Most people have an incredibly underdeveloped willpower and a strange inability to learn from errors. On top of that, the fact that the payoffs of delayed gratification are not in the immediate future scares many people off. This is an attitude I can understand, but after you try delayed gratification and see the results, you know that the lack of guarantee of a payoff is worth the increase in both quality and quantity. As usual in life, it is give and take.
Also, put yourself in the shoes of someone who has always satisfied his needs instantly. They might be hesitant to try something new. Change is the number one thing that most people are scared of. They will be filled with doubt about whether the payoff of delayed gratification is even worth it.
So I think a good place to start is to attempt to remove any doubts you may have about delayed gratification.
Step 1: Convince Yourself That Delayed Gratification is Worth it.
There are two ways you can go about this.
- Think of something that’s happened it the past that fits with the theory. Do you remember a time when, for some reason or other, you had to go without something? Didn’t you appreciate that particular thing that much more once you got it back?
- Try an experiment
- Cold showers. Yes, you read that correctly. Try only having cold showers for a week then see how you feel about your next hot shower! I think you may already know the answer to this…
- Go on a fast. Fast for a day or two and then enjoy a simple meal, you will be surprised at how great it tastes.
I think these simple tests should clearly show that delayed gratification can work.
Step 2: Start Small
Give one the experiments listed above a shot or try applying delayed gratification, on a small scale, to something else in your life. For instance, you could go for an entire morning without water and then enjoy a lovely glass of chilled water from the fridge.
The main reason for doing this is to just get into the habit of things. We are not yet trying to make major changes to our life. That’s where step three comes in.
Step 3: Identify the Major Areas Where You Should Apply Delayed Gratification
Now, how do we go about identifying where in our lives we should apply delayed gratification?
You first need to make a distinction whether the final pleasure is
- Actually a pleasure
- Worth it
Remember that many blisses carry a seed of suffering and by examining what that suffering is, we can get to the root of the true pleasure. That’s the type of pleasure that doesn’t have negative repercussions because it’s not based on mindless indulgence. That’s how you work how if something is a true pleasure. Often just waiting a little longer before indulging in something makes you think about it and you realise you can live perfectly well without it. Imagine if you waited a month each time you wanted to buy a non-essential item. How much stuff would you actually end up buying in the end?
As to the point, if the final pleasure is worth it or not, it’s generally a case of giving it a shot and see what happens. You can rely on third party accounts up to a point, but unless you actually try something, you will never know.
Identifying where you should apply delayed gratification in your life is easy. All of us know what we want to change about ourselves. The tricky part is not in the where, but in the how. As I mentioned earlier, take small steps and gradually build up to delaying the things you really are addicted to or that are negative influences in your life.
Remember that delayed gratification is just a tool to build positive change and habits. After a while the delayed gratification should become a habit, and also what you are delaying will become a habit. It’s just a common-sense way to kickstart change. Want to quit something? Just delay it for a while and then enjoy it more slowly, it’s not going to guarantee you results (nothing will), but, at least, it makes you think about what you are doing and that’s never a bad thing.
Conclusion & The Pleasure of Delaying Pleasure
Delaying Gratification is just a tool and is just the first step to controlling and mastering your desires.
So by now it should be clear that there are many advantages to delaying gratification but this is actually just the beginning. By making the avoidance of instant gratification a daily habit, you will automatically improve both your decision making and the quality of your life. After all, life is just a series of choices.
We can actually go beyond delayed gratification by starting to enjoy it for its own sake: quite literally getting instant gratification from the very fact that we are delaying gratification. This concept is counterintuitive and it might take a while to get used. When you give yourself a short smirk for having the willpower to delay a pleasure, you know you’ve got there.
Alternatively, one could attempt to go even further and get rid of desire completely and just enjoy what you have right now. Easier said than done. This can be achieved by using negative visualisation.
A few words of warning.
It can be difficult
Often it can be excruciatingly difficult to delay gratification for a future reward of greater pleasure. This is because the future is uncertain and the future reward is not a certain payoff. Hence, we can often convince ourselves and rationalise that the payoff is an impossibility or it’s far too much work.
The further away in the future the payoff, the exponentially more difficult it is delay gratification.
The problem is that even in cases that the payoff is gradual and continual, such as losing body fat by delaying the “enjoyment” of junk food. You might well lose body fat quite gradually but you probably won’t see the payoff (i.e. a noticeably different body) until the last stages.
An even worse case is when we have never experience the pleasure of the result that we are delaying. Suddenly we can find ourselves filled with doubt about whether it’s even worth it. Sometimes we don’t even know exactly what success even looks like.
All this might make you wonder why I titled the conclusion of this essay “The Pleasure of Delaying Pleasure”. There doesn’t seem to much pleasure in the actual act of delaying pleasure, only in the results. When you are just beginning that is correct, but once you get used to it you will find that you get some form of instant gratification from delayed gratification. The mere act of delaying pleasure becomes a pleasure in itself. It’s quite ironic but you may find that is what happens.
Do not Delay Forever
While I have made the whole concept of delayed gratification seem like a garden full of roses, it can, like anything, be taken to extremes and you then run the risk of getting stung by the thorns.
You need to have a goal in mind to reach, not an ever spiralling self-improvement ethos otherwise it becomes like one of those staircases that spiral on forever.
If you constantly delay a pleasure, you miss the entire point of delayed gratification. True, delayed gratification will weed out the weak and unnecessary pleasures in life but that doesn’t mean that there are no pleasures worth having in life. For instance, don’t work your whole life to accumulate a huge sum of money you will never spend. That’s just a waste of time and energy.
I guess one could take the American Dream (or should that be nightmare?) as an example of this. You are told that if you work hard and save, in the end there will be a payoff. On a superficial reading, this sounds exactly like the cases we have spoken of above. A clear cut case of delayed gratification. The only problem is that there hasn’t been an analysis of whether the payoff is worth the delay. We’ve seen before how more money or material good does not make you happier, and that’s exactly what the American Dream is based on. So the whole premise is built on a misunderstanding of human nature and the repeated lies coming from advertising.
Let’s dig a little deeper as to what may happen if you constantly put off pleasure. Let’s take the hypothetical Jones family. The grandparents worked long and hard hours at dead-end jobs so their son could go to college and university. The son worked hard at school and college so he wouldn’t let his parents’ superhuman effort go to waste. He then lands a job at a firm and spend the next ten years climbing the corporate ladder, working ever harder. At some point, he also starts a family and has a daughter who he wants to go to college and so he continues to work to put money away and pay off the mortgage. Then the daughter works hard at school so not to let her parents effort go to waste…ad nauseam.
You see where this is going? Who is ever going to reap the rewards of all this hard work? Inflation and the occasional economic crash makes sure that “safe” savings are anything but.
Often you will that the journey is more important than the destination.
Resources and Further Reading