As a child you may have been told that, “good things come to those who wait.” My family often said this around holidays when I was waiting for a birthday or a Christmas gift. It was only later that I learned this lesson has powerful implications for our lives.
The Marshmallow Test
Fifty years ago, reachers at Stanford University, led by psychologist Walter Mischel, conducted a series of famed experiments which became known affectionately as the “marshmallow test.”
During these studies, children was brought individually into an empty room, offered a choice, and left alone. They could eat a single marshmallow (small reward) set in front of them by a researcher. If they chose not to eat the reward until the tester returned (approximately 15 min), they would be given a larger reward (i.e., two marshmallows).
What happened? In the study of over 600 children, few chose to eat the marshmallow right away. Most interestingly, of those who attempted to hold off for the greater reward, only about one third of children held out long enough to get the bonus.
The Impact of Delayed Gratification on Success
The children who successfully held off for the greater reward were better equipped to delay gratification than the rest. Indeed, good things came to those who were able to wait – to the tune of a 100% profit of sugary goodness.
In follow-up studies, Mischel and others found this ability to delay gratification linked to powerful life outcomes. Children who waited longer for the extra reward further distinguished themselves from their less patient peers as seen by:
- performing better in school
- scoring better on SATs
- achieving higher levels of education
- handling stress better
- better concentration
- being healthier
- being less inclined to addictions
- exhibiting greater self-control when frustrated
- having greater willpower
- greater happiness
Sounds good, right?
As adults, trade offs aren’t marked by marshmallows. Recovering smokers avoid a cigarette to avoid lung cancer and enjoy time with their families. Shoppers stay on budget to take a long-awaited vacation and save for retirement. Runners run to stay fit, improve overall health, and live longer.
How to Cash In on The Marshmallow Test
What allowed some children to wait while others did not? Under the surface, what we’re really talking about is self-regulation – our ability to manage our thoughts, emotions, and actions.
In later studies researchers found evidence for these differences in how different individual’s brains responded to temptation. Those individuals with low self-control demonstrated an increase in activity in parts of the brain which process desires and rewards. However, in those with high self-control, brain activity increased in the parts of the brain responsible for planning, decision making, and regulating behavior.
In order to reap the greatest rewards, we must stimulate the parts of the brain which drive self-regulation.
The most successful people successfully manage their attitude, time, behavior, and efforts in order to achieve what they value most.
More specifically, high achievers leverage self-regulation in 3 distinct ways:
High achievers master their thinking. They retrain the emotion-driven parts of the brain that persist in promoting laziness, complacency, and taking the path of least resistance. They avoid counterproductive patterns in their thinking such as focusing on limitations rather than possibilities.
High achievers understand that willpower is a limited resource. They use strategies like implementation intentions to set themselves up for success. It is easier to regulate ahead of time, creating a plan and anticipating obstacles and opportunities.
Mischel found that willpower fails when we let emotions and desires dictate the decision we make in the moment. Remember, the goal is to hold out for the second marshmallow.
Self-regulation is an ability to be developed, honed, and exercised. By instilling success-building habits and routines you can build your ability to regulate over time. As John C. Maxwell said, “You will never change your life until you change something you do daily.”
How to Get Good Things
What do you really want in life? Financial wealth? A healthy family? Happiness? All roads lead through delaying gratification and building self-regulation. In our microwave, instant gratification society, we want everything on demand – now.
However, those who learn to stimulate the prefrontal cortex of the brain, responsible for planning, prioritizing, and regulating will go further faster. They avoid distractions, act with purpose, and achieve greater results over time. The challenge for the children in Mischel’s studies is no different than the one we all face. We must choose the hard right over the easy wrong, consistently. That is how good things come to those who wait.
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