In my work, and on this blog, I spend a lot of time talking about mindfulness. A major part of cultivating it involves the practice of remaining in and accepting your present-moment experience, instead of trying to improve it, avoid it, or hold on to it. Doing this runs counter to our primitive instincts; what comes easily is living for the present moment, which is different.
It makes sense that instant gratification would come naturally. Enjoying things and wanting to feel good, safe, and happy are good for survival, and our ancestors didn't benefit from waiting to defend themselves, eat a fresh kill, or flee from a threat. Especially in our world of on-demand everything and short attention spans, the concept of delayed gratification can sometimes seem about as relevant as your appendix.
This is a problem, because what keeps you alive on the savannah can keep you stuck and unhappy if your goals are grander than just survival or momentary pleasure. For instance, some people can’t resist the urge to charge a purchase today and worry about paying for it tomorrow, and find themselves in financial straits—and indeed, worrying about paying for it—as a result.
The illusion of no consequences
Consider your own short-term reward-seeking behavior and adverse consequences. In my life, I . . . ah, rather, a close friend of mine has been known to justify eating several donuts over the course of a week by the lack of ill effects on his waistline from eating a single donut on the first day. He might do it the next week, too.
At first he resides in a consequence-free wonderland, but over time, of course, his behavior yields predictable results: he begins to look like a donut.
So, while instant gratification is about quickly obtaining the next thing you imagine will make you happy, it usually travels with a partner: closing your eyes to reality and ascribing sweet permanence to a pleasant but unsustainable situation. Delay is welcome when it keeps the adverse consequences of your actions out of sight for a while.
This unholy union of instant gratification and delayed consequences can keep you from cultivating the intangible qualities you need in order to thrive. Humans are incredibly complex, sensitive creatures for whom breathing, eating, and sleeping are the bare minimum of existence.
Humans can embody compassion and wisdom, and experience love, self-actualization, joy—intangibles that can make the human heart soar. But when you are living for the moment, indulging your fleeting basic urges without considering the long-term consequences or your ultimate goals, you are reinforcing the reactivity and unwise behaviors that lead you away from those qualities.
In other words, the relentless pursuit of momentary pleasure can cause you to suffer and lead an unbalanced life, no matter how you might rationalize your actions.
A completely different friend of mine . . .
. . . once ate five donuts in a single day. From what I understand, he couched the act as a reward, or possibly as a mindful eating exercise. Whatever the pretense, it opposed his physical health goals. Other consequences also included feelings of shame, guilt, and regret which, in turn, may have subtly affected the way he related with others that day, or even for the rest of the week.
On top of that, by practicing his rationalization he made it easier to use next time. Suffice it to say, he suffered the consequences for much longer than he enjoyed eating the donuts.
Ultimately, the binge was ill-advised because, while it provided sustenance and deliciousness, it also led him away from his much more important goal of a more balanced, responsive, and wiser way of living.
When you are present in the moment, you are better able to see that your desire to have everything you want immediately and hold onto it indefinitely is just another way that aversion and longing keep you unsatisfied in your daily life.
When it comes to superficial pleasures, you will never have everything you want, nor can they provide the kind of deep, lasting happiness you are really after. Even if you did get all the good stuff, you wouldn't be able to hang on to it forever anyway.
Really, the only rational thing to do is to cultivate greater acceptance of things as they are right now, which can help you create the space to pause, acknowledge, and respond wisely to your urges rather than react blindly.
Your relationship with delay can evolve. Instead of being an impediment to your pleasure and an enabler that, with a wink and a nod, inspires you to follow every whim, it can be your partner in a wiser and happier way of living.