Waiting for Better: Walter Mischel's Marshmallow Study
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | November 2013
The impulsive demand to enjoy now and worry later exacts a heavy toll on our lives. We must learn to enjoy the present in a way that doesn't damage the future.
During the 1960’s, Walter Mischel conducted the famous marshmallow study at Stanford University. He placed a single marshmallow in front of young children, explaining that they could eat the single marshmallow now, or wait and be given a second marshmallow later—one now or two later. The wait was too challenging for some, they quickly gulped down the single marshmallow, sacrificing the possibility of a high return in the undisclosed future. Other children, however, waited to receive the promised reward. Many of those who waited avoided the temptations by busying themselves with other activities. As promised, they were rewarded for their patience and self-discipline.
Decades later, a follow-up was conducted on the original children from the marshmallow study. How did life unfold for these children? The follow-up new study found that the children who waited for a second marshmallow had stronger adult relationships, more education, and more successful careers—on average—than the impulsive children who indulged early.
The impulsive personality faces major obstacles; not because they are bad but because they are impulsive. Impulsive people withdraw value from futures for rewards in the present. The golden harvest provides wealth at the end of the season, after plowing, seeding, weeding and nurturing. The gentle stalks of the future require kindness and patience to mature. No matter the inclinations, we are subject to these natural laws; better futures demand sacrifice of some of our present enjoyments.
"The golden harvest provides wealth at the end of the season, after plowing, seeding, weeding and nurturing."
The dreadful wait for an unrecognized future becomes less problematic when we enjoy the process of development and growth. Constant displeasure in the present gnaws on self-discipline, blurs dreams, and eventually leads to seeking a simpler path. Many bored of waiting eventually tire, focused on the treat, they eat in the present while ignoring the value lost in the future.
The further we drift from actions that move us toward obtainable goals, the more we are tempted by unsubstantiated magical promises. When our debts loom large, we buy lottery tickets, make risky investments, or find distraction with purposeless amusements, escaping the torment and relieving the anxiety of worrying over the future. Our disregard of the value of the present to create a more beautiful future unfolds in greater disappointments. We get sucked into a destructive cycle.
Joys and Sorrows in the Present
The present isn’t that bad. The present, with all its limitations, doesn’t need to be viewed as a padded and bolted dungeon. Searching through human history, we discover most people worked hard to survive, without time to devote to creating happiness and ease. A vast majority of our ancestors were not living in majestic courts, supported by the labors of the commoners.
Our ancestors worked and worked hard. The bountiful harvest wasn’t found but earned. The human spirit experiences life different than simple survival, we do more than work, seek shelter, eat and die. There is richness to life—a liveliness to the emotions bursting inside our chests. We experience joys, sorrows and pleasures. We find meaning. The present is formed in our heads, taking tasks and conditions, and creating meaning, labeling the present as desirable or deplorable.
We shouldn’t dread the required work of the present. We can enjoy the process of becoming. The extent of the harvest remains unknown. When we prepare, work, and do the right things. The consequences (harvest) eventually materialize. Blessing our lives and lives of those around us.
The children of the study who waited for the second marshmallow didn’t miserably sit staring at the forbidden treat. The children succeeded by busying themselves with other activities. We can benefit from this lesson. Instead of lusting over what we don’t have in the present, we must get up and get busy. Be purposeful in action, engaging in creative and constructive behaviors. The purposeful action then, in addition to creating an enjoyable present, also transforms the future.
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