Why is it such a problem?
We live in a society where when we want something, we can have it almost instantaneously. If you don’t know something, pull out your phone and look it up. If you need a gift for someone, order it online and have it shipped to their house and it’ll arrive in two days. On a road trip and not sure which way to go, just pull up your GPS in the car and off you go. While the ability to do things faster can have its benefits, there are some things we should be concerned about. Why is instant gratification bad? What can we do to make it better?
Instant gratification is the desire to experience pleasure or fulfillment without any delays or postponements. If it doesn’t happen, then you start to get anxious or upset. Our brains are hard-wired to want immediate payoffs. So, we would much rather get a “reward” now instead of later, even if the long term “reward” is better than the one that we’ll receive in the short term. Your brain responds to a short-term reward by releasing a shot of dopamine (the potent pleasure hormone). This chemical process has been going on for eons. So, our prioritization of short term needs over long term plans is the result of evolution. A big component of this is that we have learned to not trust others to deliver what they promise in the future and realize that life is short and full of uncertainty. When you combine these together, they strongly influence our preference in relation to when we receive something because they contribute to a powerful feeling of psychological discomfort we experience when we deny ourselves something. In addition, it’s far more fun to seek immediate gratification, than it is to delay it. When we are waiting for something we’re really looking forward to, the delay in gratification increases our enjoyment of our ultimate reward. However, when we’re waiting for something that we don’t anticipate to provide a reward, the delay imposes all the aggravation of waiting without us receiving the reward.
Even though we recognize that hard work, patience and willpower are important, when we are given a choice, we will often choose the thing that feels good in the moment. Ironically, the hardest thing and most right thing are usually the same thing. So, even though waiting for something good is the “right” thing to do, it’s often the “hardest” thing to do. The inability to delay gratification and demonstrate patience when faced with a choice can impact your diet, mental health and career achievement. Those who have this inability tend to adopt a range of pleasure-oriented habits, known as impulsiveness. If you have poor impulse control, you tend to overeat, drink too much alcohol, gamble excessively or take drugs. While most people think of impulsivity as the tendency to choose a small reward now at the expense of a larger reward later, it also means that you tend to avoid small punishments now, which results in having to deal with a bigger punishment later. Many people with this problem don’t understand the origin of it. Unfortunately, more people now than ever before are being diagnosed with impulse control disorders and the number of children and adults with attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity and addictions are on the rise.
We can thank our modern, consumer-driven society for placing significant value on instant rewards. Digital marketers have capitalized on this concept of making you go crazy for that instant hit of satisfaction. With two-day shipping, “On Demand,” and the ever-expanding amount of information on the internet, we never have to wait for anything. This is why delays and uncertainty make us uncomfortable and feel insufferable. Understandably, this shift is causing chaos to our lives. As a society, we are saving less money than ever before with many of us having nothing set aside for retirement. Also, credit card debt, student loans and mortgage responsibilities are rising. Besides this, instant gratification creates a large variety of problems, such as addictions, high divorce rates, health issues, crime, aggression, obsession, depression, compulsive behaviors, over-use of technology, over-spending, procrastination, lying, laziness, anger management issues, sloppiness/disorganization, mindless behavior and low self-esteem. These problems are only getting worse new technology emerges every day. Most of us are addicted to our cellphones because they provide us that instant pleasurable feeling we crave. It has gotten so bad, that we will interact with them instead of taking the time to meet up with someone in person or even spend time by ourselves doing something non-electronic.
Instant gratification is ruining our ability to wait. The key factor in this is not the waiting itself but the fact that it represents our lack of self-control. The ability to wait for things is an enormously important psychological resource that we should all possess. People who don’t have self-control to wait for something they want tend to end up having trouble on a variety of fronts. Keep in mind that the lack of self-control isn’t always a bad thing. Often it can lead to spontaneity, flexibility, memorable interpersonal interactions, openness to new experiences and exploration of creative ideas. What counts is our ability to be able to choose when to practice self-control and follow the rules and when to do whatever we want to do in any situation.
The ability to delay gratification is the most important life skill we must learn to practice. In order to do this, we need to slow down and make mindful, conscious, long-term focused choices. Studies are finding that resisting a short-term reward in favor of a longer-term reward requires the capacity to envision the distant future. Often, this type of outlook is associated with having a higher intelligence. Caring less about the future than the present can be rational form of thinking under certain situations, such as poverty, because we are more concerned about our needs in the moment than the future. However, rationality differs from wisdom, which is our ability to make choices toward improving our well-being. Children tend to be more impulsive than adults. As we age, our ability to demonstrate self-control should improve. If a child’s parents are disengaged and unresponsive to their needs, they tend to have difficulty learning how to delay gratification. Also, our moods can greatly impact our sense of time. If you find something boring, time seems to drag on; whereas, if you are enjoying something, then time seems to go by quickly. People who have an impulsive personality are more likely to have be in a spontaneous mood more frequently than others and this can lead to intolerance of any delays of gratification. Generally, people tend to derive pleasure from anticipating good things and discomfort from anticipating bad things.
Expecting instant gratification and not getting it can make you impatient, which can lead to giving up on your dreams. The people who are willing to delay gratification, put in the effort of discipline to study/work hard, pay their dues and master any skill that they need to are the ones who end up being most successful in life. In order to improve your ability to delay gratification, you must do several things. By observing your behavior, you can recognize your moments of impulsivity. Try to be mindful in everything that you do. Learn from your impulsive moments so you’ll be able to make better choices in the future. When present with choices, always look for an alternate one. Concentrating fully on one activity at a time instead of multi-tasking is imperative. Don’t constantly check your social media or use the internet. If you put something up on social media, forget about it. Take the time to meet people and have in-person interactions. Train yourself to be patience while your completing everyday tasks. Life is about striking a balance between investing time and emotional energy into what you find important versus what you don’t.
People aren’t equally patient. Whatever we want, we don’t want to wait, we want it now! We have to break this habit of doing whatever it takes to get the immediate payoff rather than waiting for a bigger, usually more important and potentially rewarding, one. It’s essential to keep in mind that when you are far from an incentive to do something, your motivation to avoid it is far greater than your motivation to go towards it. However, when you get closer to the incentive, its pull becomes increasingly stronger more quickly. The loss of your self-control can happen so fast that you won’t even notice. Even though instant gratification can make you happy right now, it won’t in the long run. Remember, don’t sacrifice what you want most in life, for what you want right now!