There is a marshmellow underneath a glass cup on my bedside table. It’s there to remind me of the long term dangers of giving in to instant gratification.
I’ve had it there for about 6 months ever since I read a book called ‘Emotional Intelligence’ by Daniel Goleman. It’s an incredibly well researched book that explores the impact of emotional intelligence in our everyday lives. You learn very quickly that the traditional measure of intelligence; IQ, is by no means a predictor of success, happiness or health in life.
I learnt a great many things from that book, but there was one particular study the author referenced that made me want to resist the temptation of a marshmallow on my table everyday.
In the late 1960’s a group of researchers at Stanford university conducted an experiment on children. Their goal was to discover how early on in life we develop our ability to delay gratification and what impact that level of self control has on later stages of our lives.
To run the experiment they invited children one at a time into a room. Then they placed a marshmallow on a plate in front of the child and told them that they could eat the marshmallow if they wished once the adult left the room. However, they were also told that if they could wait 10 minutes until the adult returned, then they could get an extra marshmallow.
So, wait ten minutes, get an extra marshmallow, sounds easy right?
What happened next was the entertaining part.
Some children were able to resist the urge. Others were able to resist but with difficulty, hiding their eyes behind their hands or facing the other direction so they couldn’t see the marshmallow. Some tried to cheat, picking out the middle of the marshmallow in the hope the adult wouldn’t notice. Naturally, they were being observed from behind a glass window. And of course, some children couldn’t resist at all. As soon as the adult left the room, into the child’s mouth the marshmallow went.
Each child’s result was recorded. And then, the researchers left it be. For about 20 years.
So 20-ish years later, they checked in on the children, now adults.
What they discovered was remarkable. A child’s ability to delay gratification and exercise self control is a reliable predictor of that same child’s future success and happiness later in life.
Across the board, the children who had been able to delay gratification earn’t more money, had better jobs, had attained higher levels of education and were all around happier.
What I find incredible about this, and actually almost frightening, is how EARLY on in your life your ability to delay gratification already seems to be determined. It seems like very few of these children who couldn’t exercise will power were able to turn it around later on in life in order to fulfil their potential happiness and success.
To be honest, I was a little terrified when I first read this. Because I know that I struggle with delaying gratification in a lot of areas in my life. Does that mean it’s too late for me? I hoped not.
So, for the last 6 months, I’ve had that marshmallow on my table to act as visual reminder to work on my ability to delay gratification. As a Gen Y this is especially difficult, because as you know – in this age of Google we expect everything we want right now. #Haha-Am-I-Right-Guys?
So whatever you do, don’t take the marshmallow.
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