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As the silly season rapidly approaches, stores are already filled with Christmas goodies (in October, really?). Many of us may be wondering how we’re going to survive the next two months without overspending, overeating or drowning in too much debt (or aperitifs). So how do we resist all this seemingly endless temptation? And what coping strategies can we use?
The secret lies in …marshmallows.
Despite being conducted as far back as the 1960s, the Stanford Marshmallow test is still relevant today. An interesting experiment in delayed gratification and child psychology, it sought to examine self-control by offering children a choice between one small reward provided immediately or two small rewards after a short waiting period.
Follow-ups on the subjects years later revealed that children who were willing to wait longer for their two marshmallows tended to be more successful later in life. Measurements included educational success, BMI and SAT scores.
What the study showed is that for a lasting sense of wellbeing, we need to overcome the instinct for immediate gratification. Taking a longer term view of what really counts is where the difficulty frequently lies, or the art of not placing too heavy an emphasis on the “now” rather than on the future.
Just look at the average teenager to see how their impulsivity makes self-control and rational action exceptionally difficult. So, the answer, then, must surely lie in simply just learning to practice more self-control.
But we all know how difficult this is in practice. Put a marshmallow in front of a child and force them to stare at it. Nothing else. Then see how long it lasts.
So how do we convince ourselves to forgo the desperate need for instant gratification?
The most important part of the marshmallow test is often overlooked. The kids who were patient enough to wait didn’t achieve this through sheer force of will. Quite simply, they just distracted themselves. They sang. They played with their shoelaces. They hid under a desk. The psychologist who conducted the famous test later wrote: “The single most important correlate of delay time…was attention deployment…those who attended to the rewards …tended to delay for a shorter time than those who focussed their attention elsewhere, thus … distracting themselves.”
So what does this tell us? Delayed gratification is not about surrounding ourselves with temptations and hoping that we’ll resist them. Very few of us are sufficiently strong-willed to achieve that. A smarter way to encourage long-term thinking is to make sure that what you’re doing with your life is fulfilling enough that it distracts you from constantly thinking about the end rewards.
Which leads us to the next point.
Be grateful for your lot in life
Research has shown that positive emotions, such as just simply feeling grateful with one’s lot in life, can change how we act. In the more adult version of the Marshmallow experiment, subjects were incentivised with cash, with $70 in three weeks’ time vs $30 immediately. Those who were primed with feelings of gratitude were able to override the desire for instant gratification and chose the latter option.
Quite simply: feeling grateful helps you resist the urge to make an impulse purchase and makes you feel good the same way that buying something would.
And with that mindset, we’re more inclined to think about…
If the act of buying something is still too strong to resist, then consider charitable spending instead. Spending on a worthy cause will give you a longer-lasting sense of wellbeing than you would have achieved by buying something for yourself or even for that someone who already has everything.
Let’s face it: shopping can certainly lift your mood, but the guilt that follows a spending spree is often worse.
Find an NGO or charitable organisation that is in genuine need and help out – not just financially, but with your time. There is no greater gift than kindness.