We all know and have likely experienced making a New Year’s resolution that only lasted for the first couple weeks of January. Some people make it a bit longer, but it is rare that anyone sticks to the resolution long term. You may know what you need in life, what needs to change, but you cannot seem to get there at the moment, sometimes ever. Still, we may not fully understand why we cannot commit to something that has obvious benefits for our life. The answer is actually quite simple, instant gratification.
Instant, also called immediate, gratification is the desire to experience a positive emotional reaction that comes as a response to desire fulfillment without delay. In layman’s terms, this is getting something good as soon as you complete an action. Some of the more common forms of instant gratification are the indulgence of sweets over healthy meals, hitting the snooze button, and staying up late to goof off instead of going to bed at an earlier time.
Instant gratification is explained using the pleasure principle. The pleasure principle is what drives human instinct to seek pleasure, yet avoid pain to satisfy needs. Freud contrasted this with the reality principle that describes our ability to assess reality in the external world and act as needed. This principle allows people to practice delayed satisfaction. Delayed gratification is defined by resisting a small, immediate reward in order to receive a larger, enduring reward at a later time. For example, someone who is choosing to skip dessert to lose weight is using the reality principle, but the one who indulges has instant gratification.
Both principles are in pursuit of personal gratification, but the reality principle focuses on delayed gratification, is long-term, and is more goal-directed. The pleasure principle is about instant gratification and fulfillment of desire. It seems obvious why delayed gratification is the better of the two and the benefits associated with it, but we still struggle daily to give into immediate desires. This can lead to being distracted from long-term goals and commitments to fulfill immediate desires. When you constantly choose to follow your impulses, it leads to poor habits and can keep you from achieving long-term goals. However, if you constantly suppress desires, you end up resentful and dissatisfied. A balance is necessary.
Balance does not mean that goals are the focus full time, leaving short term pleasures ignored. The pleasures can be important in life. So, the goal is to improve your ability to choose how to respond to each impulse. This is done through making better choices. Below are three steps to help make better choices toward delayed gratification.
Throughout each day, we experience urges to do things like check email or eat junk food or even procrastinate. All of these things are used to distract us. Instead of acting on the impulse when it hits, pause and take a deep breathe, counting to ten. This creates some space between the urge for something and any action you take.
In every situation, we control ourselves in thought and action. We can also decide how to have control over impulses or at least how we respond. Instead of acting immediately, we can take time to weigh the consequences of giving in to overcoming the impulse. Which choice best supports the long-term goal you have in life? Giving in once in a while is fine and even healthy, but making the choice conscious instead of simply living in that moment is better long term.
Accept Your Choices
Once your choice is made, enjoy it in that moment. If the choice is made there is no point being worried about it. Whether you choose the candy or the apple, both can be enjoyable. If done consciously, both can be equally happiness producing. Make sure to acknowledge the times you wish you had made a different choice and those times you resisted temptation. If you pay attention, your decisions will improve over time. We are capable of making conscious choices that allow us to stick to commitments and be satisfied with life.