​Benefits Of Delayed Gratification

Forget About The Marshmallow Test & Find Your Drive

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Most of us will recall seeing some version of The Marshmallow Test on television. It’s that classic 1960s psychological experiment where a child is given a marshmallow and told that if she manages not to eat it, she’ll get two later. The kid who goes ahead and scoffs it right away will sacrifice that second treat. It’s a test that is not only easy for lay-people to understand but makes for entertaining TV, hence its enduring appeal to the armchair psychologist... But now it’s been updated to account for a broader socioeconomic range of children, and the findings tell us about the link between delayed gratification and financial health.

Essentially, those who couldn’t wait to get their treats were from low-income, less educated households. Broader research tells us that although many young people from poorer backgrounds do work hard in paid jobs to help support their family, their spending patterns reflect the desire for instant gratification that the marshmallow-munchers showed as pre-schoolers. In other words, they spent their spare money on treats that were non-sustainable and almost disposable, like sweets or makeup. They’re not able to save for the future or invest in products that will benefit them in the months and years to come.

It’s easy to understand why - pleasures are few and far between if you’re struggling to make ends meet and you need something to make life sparkle – but how can we interpret and internalise these lessons for ourselves? How can we better understand our own spending and saving habits?

Freud spoke of the “pleasure principle”. It’s the immediate feel-good factor we enjoy when splurging on a gorgeous pair of shoes or a £5 double caramel frozen latte. As we grow older (and actually try to grow up) we need to learn to override this impulse sometimes. And that’s not because it’s the “right” thing to do in the abstract, but because it will actually make us more deeply happy. Saving for the future, or investing in something that will make the future seem less scary (insurance, say, or a gym membership) brings us the kind of happiness Aristotle was talking about when he wrote that healthy habits and supportive relationships make us feel better than a quick fix of pleasure.

So the idea isn’t new. But how can we make it happen? As with so many of the stepping stones on the road to personal finance, it helps to identify what your goals really are. Maybe this summer, you can spend some time really meditating on what you want: what would give you that deep, Aristotelian sense of satisfaction. Where you want to be (literally and figuratively) in 10 or 20 years’ time. Let the image of that ideal state become a beautiful, full-colour reality in your mind’s eye. Imagine how your future perfect day will feel. Imagine how much energy you’ll have, and how little worry. If you can keep that powerful image in your mind every day, it should be easier to forego that expensive, disposable treat you’re thinking about. You already know, in your heart of hearts, that a £500 handbag won’t make you feel that good for that long. In fact you probably recognise the feeling of emptiness that can come right after making a mega purchase like that.

We know you can beat the craving for sparkly, sugary fluff by keeping your eye on the prize... Just try it and see how good it feels. This is one moment when feeling smug is maybe not such a bad thing. So make this the summer of grown-up pleasures. And remember: most things that feel really, really good are FREE!