Delayed Gratification Makes us Happier
After a recent Friday night dinner, my husband and I plopped down on the couch, ready to relax after a hard week. At the time, my parents were in town, and we started talking about how everything seems to be changing at such a rapid pace, and the challenges it creates for raising happy children. I asked them if they shared the same sentiments.
My parents expressed their bewilderment at how raising happy children has changed in the last thirty years. Their impression was that most youngsters today feel entitled. Part of the reason they feel this is because of the rapid speed at which technology is changing.
I agreed with their feelings, especially those regarding entitlement. It seems as though everywhere I turn, my friends are complaining: My kids constantly want more. They tell me, “No matter what I buy them, nothing satiates. And G-d forbid I should bring them to the grocery store! I end up spending so much more just because they are there with me. Honestly, the stores know exactly what they are doing putting candy at the bottom of the checkout aisle.”
I asked my mother if she had any words of wisdom regarding how to teach my children to be satisfied with what they have rather than constantly “needing” more. She began with a story that, at first, seemed unrelated. “When I was in high school I played the flute…In fact, I loved it so much that I played in the marching band.”
Marching band?! This was too much for me. Images of the nerdy girl from the famous American Pie movie entered into my mind as she was talking. It didn’t make sense. In high school, my mother was a popular blonde, blue-eyed bombshell. She was not only captain of her cheerleading squad, but also the salutatorian. Upon greater reflection, I guess it made sense that this overachiever tackled the flute as well.
“After playing as part of the school’s marching band for some time, I saved up for over a year to buy my own flute. It wasn’t anything fancy or elaborate, but it was mine. I didn’t have a lot of money, and I worked hard and set aside little by little and earned it.
“And then, one day, years later,” she continued. “It was gone. I think I lost it during the move to our new house.”
I looked at her as she was telling the story. She was tearing up! Why did this flute mean so much to her? I wondered. I had never heard this story before.
“When I think about the fact that I don’t have that flute any longer it stings. Not because of the flute itself – obviously, I could just purchase another one at this stage of my life. It stings because of how long it took me to painstakingly earn it. Then – poof! – it was gone in one second. It meant so much to me because I earned it, probably more than anything else I’ve ever bought in my life.”
She wiped her eyes. “I guess I got a little sidetracked, but what I’m trying to say is that the best way for kids to feel satisfied with what they have, is for them to earn it themselves.”
We have to give our kids opportunities to earn, by waiting, at the very least. Two things happen when a child has to work and save for something. First, because they earn it themselves, they actually enjoy it on a deeper level.
More often than not, children are on to their next “want” shortly after ripping open the box which holds their new found toy. (Sometimes, the kids play with the box longer than the toy itself.) Parents are left bewildered as to why their kids don’t get more enjoyment out of what they worked hard to buy for them. And that’s exactly it: the parents paid. When a child pays for something, there is a sense of pride and accomplishment that accompanies the item. The item becomes a symbolic representation of what the child was able to accomplish. When we work hard and pay for the item ourselves, we rob our children of that experience.
Secondly, because they have to wait for it, it enhances the enjoyment of the item. Studies show the longer you wait for something, the longer you enjoy that item.
Consider the following anecdote a friend shared with me: “I told my son that I ordered him a book he wanted. He excitedly responded, ‘That’s great! When is it coming?’
“I thought about when I ordered it and said, ‘I ordered it yesterday so I guess it will come tomorrow.’
“With deep genuine disappointment, he responded, ‘Oh man… I wanted it to come today!’”
She then proceeded to tell me about her father. When he made his first online purchase through Amazon Prime last year, “he called me with such excitement in his voice. He could not contain himself over the sheer joy that the shipment would come in only two days time!”
According to studies conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, the number one indicator of success in college students is not IQ, or even aptitude. It is a strong work ethic and the ability to delay immediate gratification.
In 1969, Stanford University conducted the famous Marshmallow Study. They handed young children a marshmallow, telling them they had two choices: They could wait five minutes, and then they would be given a second marshmallow, or they could eat it now without receiving a second one. Some children used different tactics to refrain themselves, such as turning and facing the other direction or stroking the marshmallow like it was a pet, while others could not wait and impulsively ate it. They found that the kids who refrained from eating the marshmallow had longer marriages, more financial stability, and less depression across the board.
One great thing about Judaism is that we are given plenty opportunities throughout our day to practice delayed gratification. If we eat meat or chicken, we must wait to eat dairy products. On fast days, we must wait to eat altogether. If it is Shabbos, and we receive mail that we are curious about, we must wait to open the envelope or box. All these small moments build up and allow us to become capable of waiting and practicing self control – thereby rendering us happier people. Just as importantly, it prevents hedonic adaption and that sense of entitlement we are trying to avoid.
My mom waited a long time for that replacement flute. 47 years later, for my mother’s 65th birthday party (today) all of her children and grandchildren pitched in to buy her another flute. This time, we had it monogrammed…because she earned it.
Happiness is in the journey, not the destination. The greatest gift you can give to your kids is giving them the chance to create that journey for themselves instead of jumping from destination to destination or from one toy to the next.