Long-term gains require effort. It’s practically a universal law, whether you’re working to improve your physical health or psychological health. Or even remodeling your house. The state of things doesn’t just bend to your will because you’d like it to and, what’s more, the greater the long-term benefit you seek, the more difficult the effort will seem.
This is partly because there exists friction in your brain between the “right stuff” that you ultimately want, and the “right now stuff” that’s easier to justify in the name of present-moment comfort. Each of them have vocal champions in your brain, fighting for expression in your behavior.
Your primitive, subcortical brain parts are primarily concerned with your physical survival and, therefore, are disproportionately concerned with doing their best to chart the easiest, most comfortable, most pleasant course for you through life. They fear not having enough of everything, or losing what you do have.
Your mammalian and uniquely human brain parts, on the other hand, have a different set of predilections that are also self-serving, but in a different way.
They steer you toward meeting needs and exercising capacities of yours that enable you to enjoy deeply satisfying, uniquely human feelings, like the coherence of the different parts of yourself, deep connection with others, and a sense of accomplishment, meaning, and fulfillment.
These feelings operate on different circuitry than your fleeting, moment-to-moment thoughts, urges, and emotions. They emerge as a product of personal growth and also potentiate further personal growth.
As anyone can attest who has ever tried to maintain a healthy body weight while also experiencing cravings for sweets or an extended couch-sitting session, or saved for an important purchase while struggling to keep from impulse spending, those two sets of brain functions, while serving valid needs, are often diametrically opposed.
This is where the concept of “delayed gratification” often enters the discussion—the idea that, by foregoing a reward now, a greater reward may be enjoyed later. There’s something to this.
Denying your impulse for short-term gratification is often like buying a savings bond, redeemable in the future for a gain, assuming you’re willing to safeguard your investment with ongoing patience and restraint in the meantime.
I don’t like the term “delayed gratification,” though, and I try not to use it with my clients, because it reinforces two beliefs that are actually counterproductive if you’d like to cultivate more of those human-specific good feelings.
Gratification isn't a zero-sum game
The first counterproductive idea is that you can be happy now or later, but not both. This is demonstrably incorrect.
Ask a person who refrained from a cupcake and went for a workout instead, or saved a bit of money instead of making an impulsive, superfluous purchase, and you’ll almost always hear that the restraint was accompanied promptly by a shot of positive feelings.
There’s an immediate, if subtle, reward in exercising agency in a situation that could go one way or another, and successfully tipping the scales in favor of your long-term well-being. That reward might not provide the immediate jolt of a cupcake or an impulse buy, but that’s because its energy is designed to sustain you, rather than dazzle you.
Happiness and pleasure aren't the same thing
This brings me to the second problem with “delayed gratification.” By linking the denial of short-term gratification with short-term unhappiness, it reinforces the belief (championed by your reptilian brain) that happiness is achieved through a steady stream of pleasurable things and experiences. Things that can be seen, touched, or eaten, for instance, rather than intangible things.
Yet the research literature says otherwise: people who are oriented toward the pursuit of extrinsic goals (i.e. things outside of themselves, including sensory pleasure, fame, money, and the approval of others) rather than intrinsic ones (say, being competent, ethical, or compassionate) tend to be relatively unhappy.
Sure, using the term “delayed gratification” is just a language choice, but language is powerful, especially when it comes to your internal dialogue. “Delayed gratification” connotes austerity, forbearance, temperance . . . I can almost picture the term wagging its finger.
If your primitive brain is a fun-loving party animal, then “delayed gratification” is the grim-faced preacher trying to drag it into the revival tent. Or, at least that’s how your reptilian brain likes to spin the story, and it’s a pretty compelling spin.
The parts of your brain that allow you—and want you—to achieve your full human potential aren’t really party poopers, though. They enjoy a good time—particularly their own, deeply fulfilling brand of good time—but they also don’t begrudge you pleasure-filled moments. They’re just asking for you to keep their needs in mind, too, so that you can be all the human you can be.
Every time you couch this as a command to “delay gratification,” as well-meaning as you are, you have become complicit in your reptilian brain’s spin tactics. It’s not telling you the whole story, and it’s making it harder for you to succeed in your change efforts.
Let your core self do the talking
What can you do about it? For starters, stop being a mouthpiece for your primitive brain. It’s loud enough on its own. Stop telling yourself that you’re delaying gratification and start actively looking for and identifying the gratification that you receive right now from meeting and exercising your own unique constellation of human needs and capacities.
Remind yourself that you’re not giving up anything. You’re setting your aim a bit higher than a donut, a shopping spree, a drink, or whatever your primitive brain is pushing for, and in return you’re reaping greater benefits—right now and later—that can’t be achieved any other way.
Also, consider starting a mindfulness meditation practice. In a nutshell, mindfulness meditation is a practice of turning toward, becoming aware of, and accepting your moment-to-moment experience of life, whether or not it feels pleasurable right now.
Over time, doing this will mitigate your primitive brain’s outsized influence on your thoughts and behavior. You’ll be able to accommodate its concerns together with those that better determine your deeper satisfaction with life.
When you cut back on encouraging your small-minded self, motivated as it is by unrelenting fear and concerns of scarcity, you’ll help your core self—the one motivated by wisdom and growth—to emerge and stand tall.