How Delayed Gratification Shapes Your Health
By Shane Trotter. Originally published on www.breakingmuscle.com
Remember that squat PR you reached at age 35, or when you finally mastered the front lever and planche? How about that college class you pulled up from a C to an A? Or that first car you saved for all summer?
What all these events have in common is they are great life successes made possible by the discipline of delaying self-gratification. Millions of tiny impulses had to be overridden or ignored as you committed to habits and invested in working toward big goals. So many people struggle all their lives, because they aren’t able to conjure up that same strength and impulse control.
If you had to choose only one value instill in our youth to ensure success, none could rival delayed gratification. It’s at the root of every effort toward positive change, every goal realized, every dream. The most rewarding experiences in your life came about because you created a vision that stirred you to live differently, and because that vision demanded sacrifice and persistence. The willpower of delaying gratification is a skill we can and should intentionally practice. There is no better arena to practice and develop this life-changing skill than physical training and personal health.
Marshmallows and Future Success
In the 1960’s, Professor Walter Mischel of Stanford University conducted an elaborate study of hundreds of four- and five-year-old children. Each was taken to a room, individually, and seated with one marshmallow in front of them. The rules were explained that the youth could eat their one marshmallow now and that would be all, or refrain from eating until the researchers returned, and they’d be awarded a second marshmallow. I’m sure the subsequent videotape is priceless, as kids did everything in their power to resist the hypnotic draw of the marshmallow.
The few children who abstained for the entire 15 minutes were categorized as high-discipline, and the whole group was tracked for the next four decades. Forty years later, the difference between low-discipline marshmallow eaters and high-discipline delayers was stark. Those who’d waited for the researcher to return had far fewer behavior problems, excelled in stressful situations, had lower body mass indexes, lower divorce rates, and far higher SAT scores. The difference in those who waited the entire 15 minutes and those who ate the first marshmallow within 30 seconds was an average difference of 210 points in the SAT. The findings were clear. By every metric, those who delayed gratification were more successful, had better relationships, better health, and greater emotional intelligence. This seemingly amusing and non-consequential scenario had grand ramifications.
Delayed Gratification and the Gym
Delayed gratification is part of the daily fabric of anyone who trains. We all have felt that inner angst of wanting to skip today’s workout, and yet we persevered. We battle all day with whether to go or not, and find showing up to be the hardest part. But after the workout is over, the application of willpower that got us there is rewarded with a feeling of gratitude and sense of health and vitality that would have escaped us had we listened to our wimp instinct.
Those feelings create a positive feedback loop that we begin to crave, and that drives us to persist. We delay the gratification of sitting idle in the pursuit of a greater goal. It’s the root of physical toughness. We’ve all battled the devil on our shoulder—that inner wimp—during an intense workout, as he tells us “that’s good enough. Just stop.” How good it would feel to quit and call it a day! Maybe we learned it in athletics, or from great mentors, or just an innate desire to be as great as we can be. But we know that to quit is to begin the habit of accepting excuses that would insidiously infect the rest of our lives. We finish.
Delayed gratification is part of the maturity it takes to train intelligently or learn any new skill. Every group of 14-year-olds I bring into the weight room wants to throw as much weight as possible on the bar to show me and their friends how strong they are. It’s the job of the coach to temper their egos, and insist upon execution of form before increasing weight. These young men are shocked at the level of focus and understanding expected of them. But resistance training, like any skill, requires an investment in the fundamentals. Coaches who skip this are doomed to see their athletes fail on the playing field, and ensure injury and stagnation in the weight room.
The athletes who buy into this solid foundation have immensely higher long-term potential. Their training will suffer far fewer interruptions from injury than those in other programs, who get hurt in the weight room or move poorly. We delay the gratification of pushing and yanking on bars like it’s a game, and instead create a mature understanding of basic training principles and philosophy, and a mindset that optimizes long-term growth.
It's Time to Get Tough Again
Phrases like “inner wimp” and my praise for physical toughness are probably off-putting to many. Our culture is obsessed by physical toughness when displayed by others, from the exploits of our military, to the performances of elite athletes, to the next-door neighbor’s marathon training. But we are simultaneously uncomfortable identifying toughness as a value worth teaching. Something about it seems overly harsh. To create tough people requires less self-pity, and to respond somewhat callously to other’s discomfort.
The reality is we’ve never lived in a wimpier time. Indoor air temperatures are always perfect, every hint of fever elicits a rush for antibiotics, the solution for anxiety is medication, in the place of understanding and mental training. Millions of people are in declining health simply because exercise “sounds so painful.”
Delayed gratification and toughness are intimately linked. Are we willing to persist through temporary discomfort in order to realize a goal? Those who have mastered their fear of physical pain and developed more tolerance for discomfort will live better lives. Physical pain is going to be a part of everyone’s life. When we accept and embrace this, we can find happiness in the strength born of our trials, rather than feel we are the victim of some affliction.
Physical toughness is an ability created by environmental stimulation. Before air conditioning and smartphones, we were all subjected to harsh environmental elements. Survival required tough labor, in the form of hunting or farming. Houses were built, not bought. Possibly the greatest gift of training is the reconnection with what is natural. It is perhaps the most important tenant of physical and mental health. To become successful as individuals or as a society, we must give some credence to the values of willpower and discipline.
Delayed Gratification and Body Composition
Delayed gratification and toughness are at the root of every effort toward healthy change. For long-term weight loss, people must find the strength to delay gratification repeatedly. To do so requires a vision, a plan, and to some degree, just raw discipline. Many try to cheat the system by counting calories and still indulging in a diet of mostly sweets. Their lack of commitment to eat more quality foods means they’ll face the tyranny of calorie counting, with none of the rewards of better health and vitality. Their perception that life without daily treats is deprivation ensures that they will have to severely limit calories and nutrients to lose weight. Eventually they fail, as this is no way to live. The root of their failure is an unwillingness to delay their constant desire for sweets.
The true route to better nutrition is a commitment not to a fad diet, but to change daily nutritional habits for a lifetime. One must set limits, like ice cream only one day a week, and be willing to follow through with them. Those who can’t delay gratification inevitably have soda and cake every time it’s offered at the staff meeting, and fast-food whenever their buddy says he’s going out to get some.
Mental Training vs. Big Pharma
Toughness and discipline rely heavily on training the mind. The essence of many forms of mental training is the ability to delay gratification. More people than ever are having trouble focusing and de-stimulating. Our world offers constant distraction, with cell phones chiming away about the 12 social media outlets that demand our constant attention. We’ve found ourselves dealing with unheard of disorders, like FOMO (fear of missing out) and “distraction sickness.”
It’s unconscionable to allow a generation to grow up in this environment and never give them a framework to manage its hazards. Rather than use these tools for the better, a lot of kids live at the whim of these devices and the cravings they create. Enter a college library, and you’ll see hundreds of distracted young adults studying with their phones out, earbuds playing the latest pop song, and five social media accounts open on their browser. They’ve never been taught to practice the discipline of focus. They conclude that there must be something wrong with them, something that is inhibiting their focus, and then they start taking their friend’s Adderall. It’s really no big deal, right?
ADHD medication is abused with startling regularity while, ironically, the social-media-crazed world actually trains the mind towards ADHD’s vague and inclusive symptoms. Not surprisingly, ADHD diagnoses continue to climb. Dr. Keith Connors, the man who first created the ADHD diagnosis, calls this “a national disaster of record proportions.” ADHD has historically been seen as a disorder that afflicts 5% or less of the population, and that fades with aging.
But big pharma saw a goldmine. Adderall, Concerta, and other drugs have seen demand skyrocket. Intense advertising campaigns use everything from retroactive diagnoses of Ben Franklin, to hardly-related and common symptoms like forgetfulness in doing chores. Adam Levine encourages you to take an online test that will all but guarantee you start believing you have ADHD. There is even the development of new kinds of ADHD, like adult-onset Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder without the hyperactivity.
Dr. Connors remains indignant: “The numbers make it look like an epidemic. Well it’s not. It’s preposterous.” The real epidemic appears to be abuse of ADHD medication.
That these medications are overprescribed and abused is a symptom of our instant gratification society. We assume every kid should be formed to fit our industrial model of education. When they don’t, rather than give them the tools to learn how to focus and train the mind, we opt for a pill. The same is done for anxiety, weight loss, and a myriad of other problems. We don’t see challenges as opportunities for self-development, and instead opt for pharmaceutical “band-aids” that require no growth and leave us limited and shallow.
Meditation and Distraction Management
Mental training and self-learning are vital to growth and development. My own mental training for focus, anxiety reduction, and self-discovery has mostly occurred through meditation. This is not the only option, just the method I have most experience with. In meditation, you follow your breath for a period of time. Distracting thoughts come and go, but the practice is to return focus to your breathing. In watching your thoughts pass, there is great education. You learn the relationship between your thoughts, emotions, and body, while becoming far more mindful of patterns that have been in control of you. It is a continual process of stripping down your assumptions to find truth.
Through daily practice, I’ve found that I need not be swept away by thoughts or emotions. I am able to catch myself before dramatizing a situation or letting one challenge bleed into the next. How I perceive and explain situations has changed as I’ve developed more patience, greater focus, and more ability to delay gratification. In meditation, there is a constant desire to chase after thoughts or distract yourself. You will face boredom and the tension of a world that does not value sitting and doing nothing. This has taught me a level of mental resilience, discipline, and confidence I’d have never thought possible five years ago.
In a world where distraction abounds, having the discipline to meditate may be the best gift you can give yourself. At its core this is delaying the gratification of following each passing thought and opting to root yourself in each breath. If we return to the marshmallow test, the experimenters found that the children who could wait out the 15 minutes were those that could best bring their attention to something else. They were able to sing songs or play games with themselves to move their mind elsewhere. It is unique for a 4-year-old to have this impulse control. This is the same way that meditation allows people to escape anxiety and depression. They learn not to attach themselves to an emotion and allow thoughts and feelings to pass.
Develop Mental Depth for Limitless Growth
The other essential lesson of meditation is appreciation and love for the moment, with an understanding that nothing in the future is guaranteed. How do we reconcile all this delaying of gratification with that? On the surface, it might appear that all these “successful” delayed gratifiers were just stuffy, color-between-the-lines types.
The reality is quite the opposite. What you find in people who’ve learned to delay gratification is a mastery of their emotions that allows greater happiness, positive perception, and presence in each moment. They’ve learned what is really important in life. They prioritize their thoughts and emotions, rather than be at the whim of their “inner wimp” and their impulses. They’ve learned to love the process of growth so much that delayed gratification is a habit that is in no way perceived as deprivation. They savor garlic rolls and pasta at an Italian dinner, then wake up the next day and return to their habits with gratitude. It gives them great pleasure to live healthy and be on the hunt for something they believe in. Because they crave growth, they’ve found purpose in what they do and a love for the daily processes.
The weight room is the refreshing antidote to a world intent upon lowering standards and inflating scores to ensure a false sense of self-esteem. The purity and truth offered in training is what makes it such an excellent vehicle for teaching life lessons. As you prepare to train others or dedicate yourself to new training- or health-related goals, I hope you will consider intentionally focusing on delayed gratification. There is great empowerment in realizing the deep ramifications of this skill.