Delayed gratification is the act of resisting impulse and immediate rewards in the hope of obtaining a more valuable reward in the future. It’s a powerful tool to develop and it requires sacrifices, consistency, and a whole lot of FOMO (fear of missing out). However, the immense amount of self-control and willpower it takes to keep that future goal in mind often comes at the expense of living in the moment and finding happiness each day. As a result, the present can pass you by.
But what if there’s a way to balance finding joy in the moment and working towards long-term goals?
So much happiness to be found in the process of creating your future vision, and once you find the joy in the journey, you’re much more likely to stick to it and keep working towards that long-term goal. It’s time to rethink delayed gratification and shine a positive light on the process.
What is “Delayed Gratification”?
Research on delayed gratification usually refers back to the classic ‘marshmallow experiment’. In the 1970s, psychologist Walter Mischel placed a marshmallow in front of children and gave them two options: enjoy the treat now or wait a short period and get two. When the experimenter left the room, some kids immediately ate it, but some kids resisted the urge and waited for the reward of two treats later on. Mischel discovered that the kids who were able to wait for the bigger treat had a number of advantages later on than the children who grabbed the snack straight away: they performed better academically and displayed fewer behavioral problems. Psychologists and parents alike continue to test their children’s patience with similar experiments, for example, the recent Tiktok trend involved parents placing a pile of goodies in front of their toddlers and ask them to wait until they get back to have some.
While it’s unlikely you’ve ever had to wait with a marshmallow in front of you, you’ve probably faced similar choices between “having it now” or “waiting for better” in your life. Some examples might include not buying snacks when you’re out, so you can cook a healthy meal when you’re home; not watching television until you get your work done, so you can watch it feeling relaxed and guilt-free; or missing a night out with friends, to work on a project you’re passionate about. Whether it’s a small or big goal you’re working towards, there’s likely to have been an easier and more immediate option you’ve had to resist. Hopefully, the decision paid off, but I imagine it wasn’t an easy choice.
The Joy in Delayed Gratification
So we’ve established that delayed gratification is beneficial, but not easy. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable. Delayed gratification is often conceived as being miserable now so you can be happy later, but this is a myth it’s time to debunk.
Delayed gratification doesn’t have to be about delaying happiness and living for the future. It’s doesn’t have to be an ‘I’ll be happy when I’ve achieved x, y, or z’. You can find joy right now in the process of creating that future. You can enjoy the steps you’re taking each day and the excitement that comes with them, rather than denying yourself that enjoyment and excitement until you arrive at them. Instead, think ‘I’m enjoying working towards x, y, and z’.
Delayed gratification can also be an act of self-love. It can be about acknowledging that the reason you’re giving it your all, is because you deserve it all. Rather than thinking ‘I’m not good enough to even try, I’ll just take the easy route’, think ‘I deserve bigger things, and so I’m going to put in the effort to achieve those things’. As for the FOMO, it’s important to take breaks and be flexible, but you can find a balance that works for you. Trust yourself and your decision to skip a night out, junk food, or whatever it is you resisted, and know that you’re not missing out on anything if you’re replacing something superficially enjoyable to work on something with passion, purpose, and a deeper sense of joy.
3 Ways to find joy now while working towards future happiness
Now you’ve reframed delayed gratification to something more positive, let’s look at practical ways to find the joy in the journey.
- Seek small joys
You can’t enjoy life if you don’t take time to notice it. Yes, you may have been stuck at your desk working away on something all day, but did you light a candle and set up a nice working space? did you have a coffee or hot drink you really enjoyed? did you get outside at all? did you have a nice message or call from your friend? What did you do to unwind in the evening?
Or maybe you were struggling through a workout at the gym, but did you have a good playlist on? did you notice any progress or improvement in your strength? did you bump into anyone you knew? There’ll be little joys spread throughout the day, however, you spend it, so seek them out and hold onto them!
You can also make these joys habitual – what’s something you love that can be incorporated into your daily routine? What’s something you could spend a little longer doing and truly find pleasure in it? When you go to sleep think through the day, pay attention to the details, and dwell on the things you’re grateful for to drift off happy and content with the day.
- Visualize your goals
Think about the reward you’re working towards. Close your eyes and create the scene. Paint all the details, engage all the senses, and imagine how it feels. Bring it to life in your mind, mentally moving through the actions. Live the experience as though it is happening at that moment. If your imagination needs an aid, you can make a vision board (or a Pinterest board) to really see what it is you’re working towards.
When you do this you can make it feel like it is actually happening, and you may start to experience a flood of excitement. If you visualize the thing that will bring you joy, you’ll experience some of that joy!
- Celebrate every achievement
If you don’t completely believe that you’re going to be able to obtain that bigger reward you’ll 1) be less motivated to work towards it, and succumb to the easier option, or 2) work towards the latter reward filled with scepticism and self-doubt. Neither is particularly joyful.
A good way to instill that belief is to recognize that you’ve achieved big things before – you’ve resisted the immediate reward for something greater – and so you can do it again. As for finding joy? That comes from the pride and “pat on the back” for everything you’ve achieved so far. Every single step you’ve taken towards your goal.
When you’re working towards something, it’s easy to put the blinkers on and not acknowledge the steps you’ve taken and hurdles you’ve overcome along the way. And many things you’ve achieved today are things you dreamed about in the past. It doesn’t have to be a big party, but celebrate in some small way the things you’ve achieved. Because you’ve likely achieved a lot more than you give yourself credit for!
It’s time to enjoy the journey, embrace the process, and love the continual growth. Because they’ll always be the next thing we’re striving towards.