Waiting for it: Becoming friendly with delayed gratification

Instant gratification society


Our current culture seems to be based first and foremost on the idea of instant gratification. Lately I’ve been noticing this more and more. The news of our continuing economic struggle shows us the direct results of this pervasive attitude. Burdensome personal debt, health crises, the advent of ADD, and  the fact that storage facilities have become the fastest growing industry in the US , spell it out for us. We can’t save up enough money for that new thing so we buy it on credit. We have to have that sweet treat now, and now, and now. We don’t make the time to prepare healthy meals or exercise; it’s too much of a bother. We can’t sit in silence for 5 minutes without turning on the TV/computer/smart-phone/gameboy. We have to have it now but there’s no room for it in the house and we won’t use it until next summer, or maybe the summer after that . . .

Marketing and advertising campaigns tell us that we have to have it right now, and by god do we deserve it, so go ahead and buy it. These are manufactured psychological ploys. We know this. Our native intelligence informs us that we’re being led to the cashier’s counter–we’re really not that dumb. We can see through these ploys, but is that enough for us to make up our own minds about what we need and when we need it? Not usually. We’ve lost the ability to put the brakes on our pursuit of any and all objects of our desire for even a moment.

More is better, right?

Additionally, we’re caught up in the idea of more is better. You can never have enough or be enough. We are celebrated for being super-busy, super-accomplished, super-wealthy super-people. But at the end of the day what’s so super about being too tired to make love to your spouse or read your children a bedtime story? What’s so super about being so stressed out that you can’t sleep? What’s so super about being so disconnected from your body that you don’t feel good in it as you lay it down?

The word “enough” has become meaningless at best or negative at worst. “Good enough” is just another description of mediocrity. It’s for people who are less than. “Enough” places limits on us. How much work is enough in today’s tough job climate? More. You can always handle more work or you’ll lose your job to someone who can.


The need for instant gratification and the belief that more is better both stem from a poverty mentality. They say that we are not enough, right now. In this very moment who we are, what we do, and what we have is not enough. I’d like to stand up and emphatically say, “Enough is enough!” Who’s with me?

Our delayed gratification muscles have atrophied. We need to start exercising them to strengthen them. We must do this to take back our lives: all those moments throughout the day that are stolen from us in the race for more now.

Delayed gratification is good

What is delayed gratification, really? It is not randomly putting something off, but rather purposefully denying yourself something you think you want for a period of time. Maybe this is the time it takes to save up the money to buy it. Maybe it’s a 20 minute window you’ve allowed to decide if you are still hungry. Maybe it’s allowing somebody to get back to you on their own time rather than hounding them for their response. According to plenty of Efficiency Experts / Get-It-Done Gurus one must have a highly developed ability for delayed gratification if one is to succeed in life and business. For example, setting goals and working on them consistently over a period of time is a form of delayed gratification. You have a vision of what you want and you work at it until you have manifested that vision. If we don’t develop delayed gratification then we never see our goals to fruition. Our efforts get sidetracked by the instant gratification of wanting to be entertained, zone out, be lazy, or whatever we think we want in that moment. Believe me, I am a master at sidetracking (just ask anyone who knows me), but I am also blessed with a fierce tenacity that keeps me on my path.

Is delayed gratification as fun as instant gratification? No. Not in the moment at least. But it does get easier as we practice it.

Appreciate what you have

Another practice we can cultivate is appreciation. Appreciation for the present moment leads to contentment. I’m not talking about the slack-jawed attitude that everything is hunky-dory (although that is my fave David Bowie album). I’m talking about a very conscious attempt to be satisfied for even a moment with what is.

I am coordinating a class at the Boulder Shambhala Center called Contentment in Everyday Life. Even as my third go ’round in the class (once to participate, twice to coordinate), my understanding of contentment continues to deepen. What is contentment? A good working definition for this class has been: letting go of the struggle. What are we struggling with? We have a natural tendency to rail against reality. We almost always want it to be something else. We spend almost every waking moment wishing/dreaming/thinking of how we would like it to be different. We spend all of our energy in making it so. Can we do something different? Absolutely.

Come on a little mental journey with me. Think back to a slice in time when you were absolutely satisfied with the present moment, content with how it was just then. Hold that memory in your mind. Savor every sensation, every detail.  I have a memory of swinging in the backyard of my house in Claymont, Delaware as a child. The sun warm on my face and I alone in the silence/buzz of a summer afternoon. Underneath my closed eyelids the sunlight glows red. There was no need or desire of anything more in that moment. It was enough to just be. Having remembered at least one moment of contentment, we know that we have the capacity for it. Now we can have more moments of contentment.

Take a few minutes to take stock of your life right now. Appreciate it for what it is. Don’t let your mind immediately move on to what’s next/bigger/better. Train it to stay for just a few moments on what is happening and how you are feeling now. Do you feel that this moment is enough? Could you feel that this moment is enough? We can’t force contentment, and we can’t accomplish anything to achieve it. But we can let it happen if we drop the struggle for more/better/now.

‘Tis the Season

This is just a little reminder for the upcoming holiday season. It wasn’t even Halloween before Christmas was appearing in stores. On November 1st the corporate Christmas trees came out, instilling a cat and mouse game of heightened anticipation. It seemed very wrong to walk through the lobby of The Curtis Hotel in Denver last weekend and see what can barely be called a Christmas Tree (more like a Tower of Tinsel) so prominently displayed with weeks to go before Thanksgiving. Are we now just skipping over that holiday of thanks and appreciation in favor of blatant consumerism (and apparently kitsch)?

Let us set aside a few moments for ourselves this Thanksgiving to slow down and appreciate who we are and what we have right now. And maybe to be content . . . if only for a moment.

Jen MurphyComment