Listen to this article
Delayed gratification has enjoyed an excellent reputation ever since the “marshmallow” study in the 1970s. This showed that children who chose to wait for a later, bigger reward of marshmallows, instead of giving in to temptation straight away, had better life-outcomes, on several measures.
It makes sense to get into the habit of waiting a little before satisfying desires, perhaps even choosing not to satisfy some of them at all on occasion. Being pushed around by our impulses can lead to undermining our own projects and an inability to consider our long-term wellbeing or other people’s point of view.
Even delayed gratification has its downsides, however. A reader who is “mostly a delayed-gratification person” asks whether impulsive indulgence can be a good thing occasionally, and reflects that “I find that I feel guilty when I have something immediately. And it is not as fulfilling or as meaningful.”
As is the nature of habits, a custom of delaying can acquire a life of its own, to the point that immediate gratification comes to seem just wrong. If that happens, we can try tweaking our routines, allowing ourselves to go against the grain by sometimes indulging ourselves, and challenging our guilty reactions.
But it’s worth giving some thought to the role of gratification in our life. Just as John Betjeman declared in a TV interview that he regretted not having more sex, there is an assumption that being too austere will be a matter of regret on our deathbed. However, the nurse who not so long ago published her findings about the major regrets of the dying found that these revolved around things such as being true to oneself and failing to cultivate friendships rather than anything straightforwardly hedonistic.
Wisdom is a more important feature of a fulfilling life than hedonism, and being wise involves being able to rein in our desires. But, as Aristotle said, “if there is anyone who finds nothing pleasant and is indifferent about everything, he must be far from being human”. Being wise also means recognising that sometimes it is acceptable to go along with our desires.
Delayed gratification is a Janus-faced virtue, used both as a tactic by hedonists to maximise pleasure and a strategy by ascetics to minimise it.
For the ascetic, to act instantly on our desires is to becomes slaves to them, and they are hardly the wisest of masters. If we wait and think before following their orders, we often find we don’t need what they command us to seize. Sometimes they even make us worse off: fatter, poorer, more burdened by stuff, messily entangled in the intimate lives of others.
But some see delay as a way of extending and heightening pleasure. The more you have to wait for something, the more you generally appreciate it. Time also allows us to optimise the conditions of enjoyment. To not let the wine breathe and the cheese come up to room temperature is to waste both.
Anticipation is also a pleasure in itself, some would say greater than that of indulgence. As Winnie-the-Pooh observed, “although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were”. More crudely, many a seducer has claimed the chase is better than the catch. In Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes goes further: “Happiness lies in the imagination, not the act. Pleasure is found first in anticipation, later in memory.”
I can see the truths in all these ideas. But I wonder if we are led astray if we think that the question of delay is the central one. Rather, should we not cultivate selective gratification? The ideal is neither to satisfy nor resist every desire, but to make sure we only act on those that are truly rewarding, at the right time and in the right place. Delay therefore becomes simply one tool among others, not the master key.
Some of the sweetest moments in life are when chance presents a happy opportunity to do something wonderful, here and now, without hesitation. In such cases, gratification delayed is satisfaction denied.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email shrink&sage@shrink&sage.com
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published