“All good things come to he who waits.”
I recently learned that there is science to back up this classic proverb.
The Marshmallow Experiment
It went down like this: In the late 1960s, researchers at Stanford University sat a group of four year-olds in front of a marshmallow. Before the researchers left the room, they told the children that they could eat the marshmallow if they wanted to, but if they waited until the adult came back into the room, they would get an additional marshmallow to enjoy.
The kids who scarfed up the marshmallow right away were tagged as “present-oriented” and the little guys who were able to wait (in some cases up to 20 minutes! If you’ve ever parented a four-year-old, you’ll recognize what a miraculous event that was) were classified as “future-oriented.”
The researchers followed up with the kids 14 years later and ran a bunch of tests. There were some telling differences between those children who were able to delay gratification, and those who were unable to resist temptation.
For starters, the future-oriented kids scored on average 250 points higher on the SAT exam. They were also found to be more confident and cooperative when working with others. The present-oriented kids, on the other hand, were noted to be indecisive, prone to jealousy, and liable to overreact to frustration.
In yet another follow up study conducted when the cohort reached adulthood, the second marshmallow kids reported more fulfilling lives, satisfying careers, financial stability and long-lasting relationships. On average, they earned higher incomes. The marshmallow scarfers, on the other hand, reported being unhappy with their lives. They had spotty employment history, trouble maintaining relationships, and a great deal of financial stress.
Patience is a Virtue
It seems that being skilled at delaying gratification is directly correlated to success in all areas of life. This lesson can be applied to achieving weight loss goals. And I don’t mean just finding the willpower to step away from the bake sale table. I believe that when we remain future-oriented, we are able to stay motivated by long-term goals. We are also more likely to invest time and resources into achieving big picture goals vs. gravitating toward quick-fix solutions.
When we express dissatisfaction with the current state of our body or our health, what is it that we truly desire? Is it dropping 20 pounds in two months? Or gaining permanent freedom from the compulsive eating that causes us to become overweight and unhealthy in the first place? The former can be accomplished with short-term adherence to any number of low-calorie or fad diets. This strategy tempts us with the instant gratification of seeing numbers on the scale drop, but it doesn’t get at the root of the problem. We may even find that we aren’t as happy as we thought we would be at the goal weight, and fall back into self-defeating patterns that lead us to gain the weight back. Changing thoughts, behaviors, rituals and habits, on the other hand, takes time and patience. This type of transformation may take a lot longer, but lead to permanent changes and ultimately greater happiness.
Accomplishing true freedom from compulsive or binge eating means gaining greater self-confidence and never having to lose that 25 pounds – ever again.
Hope for Those of Us with Little Self-Control
What I found unsettling about the marshmallow experiment is that being present-oriented or future-oriented seemed to be written into the genes of these four year-olds and to stick with them through life.
Does this mean that if you are born “present-oriented,” that you will never be able to muster the patience needed to earn the big pay-offs in life?
No, I don’t think so. According to a number of other research studies, the brain is malleable. It can adjust itself after traumatic injury. We can also retrain our brains with practice.
The Monk Experiment
Dr. Richard Davidson, a Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has been studying the brains of Buddhist monks who each have logged at least 10,000 hours of meditation. (That’s 416 days of meditating!) Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imagery, Davidson has demonstrated that meditation can induce significant changes in patterns of functional activity in the brain.
Just as an injured brain can adapt by mapping out new neuron pathways to accomplish tasks, “brain circuits [for] regulation of emotion and attention are malleable by the environment and are potential targets of training.” Ryan, D. (2009, September 25). Mental exercise like medication can literally change our minds. Vancouver Sun. Retrieved from www.vancouversun.com
If we are by nature easily frustrated, it is entirely possible to change our natural inclinations. Thankfully, there is no need to check into a monastery to achieve a new outlook. I have discovered a great little book, “Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time,” written by neuropsychologist Rick Hanson. He provides simple exercises for retraining your brain to work better for you, so that you can be happier and experience more favorable results in your life. Love It.
Hanson addresses this business of impatience, which he claims, “combines all three ingredients of toxic stress: unpleasant experiences, pressure or urgency, and lack of control.” Ugh.
He provides a number of practical and easy exercises we can do to cultivate patience and future orientation. Here are two of them:
Play with routine situations – such as a meal – and take a few extra seconds or minutes before starting, in order to strengthen your patience muscles.
Rather than feeling that you are “wasting” time, find things that are rewarding in situations that try your patience; for example, look around and find something beautiful. Pay attention to your breath while relaxing your body, and wish others well. Similarly, rather than viewing yourself as “waiting in” situations, explore the sense of “being in” them. Enjoy the time being.
Following these and his other suggestions mindfully each day can help us learn how to apply patience and persistence to bigger goals. Try them in different settings. I predict that if you can become Buddha-like in line at Disney World in July, you will have no problem committing to making permanent lifestyle changes over time. Rather than getting discouraged or feeling like a failure if you fall back into old patterns of behavior, you can learn to enjoy the process, celebrate small successes, and feel confident in knowing that, with persistence, you WILL realize your vision for a happier, healthier you.
Elaine Morales, Founder of Not Just a Daydream, is a health and lifestyle transformation coach, author of Why Delay Amazing? A Total Transformation Guide and an NPC figure competitor. Her mission is to help as many people as possible to overcome barriers to achieving the body and life of their dreams!