The habit of instant gratification and what’s good and bad about it
By Aditi Raman Shridhar
Do you easily give in to temptation? May be for that crispy cheesy burger that you have been particularly asked to avoid for health reasons or watching your favourite Netflix show late night when you know you should be sleeping, or something else that catches your whim and fancy this moment?
Chances are you are one amongst the majority of humanity who give into instant gratification. There is nothing bad with giving into all sorts of temptations, some are benign but many aren’t good either and choosing wisely may save you from a great deal of trouble.
Simply put instant gratification is all about giving into a temptation by foregoing a future benefit in order to obtain a less rewarding but more immediate benefit. The temptation could be food, entertainment or sex. After all which one of us really says to oneself – “My stomach is churning and I want to have that delicious dish but I’d rather eat this healthy fruit right now and wait a few hours for that rich meal.”
It is quite natural to want good things in the NOW. We are after all programmed for it because our evolutionary mindset makes us take care of the NOW and survive, instead of postponing good things and good actions for the future. It is only when our most basic needs are met that we can afford to think of future and pushing good actions in the future and wait for the results. For example if you didn’t have enough money to eat today, you wouldn’t trade in stocks and wait for profit to show.
The flip side of instant gratification is delayed gratification or the decision to put off satisfying your desire in the NOW in order to gain an even better reward or benefit in the future. It is easy to see how much wiser the psychology of delayed gratification is, but it brings along with it a constant struggle on a daily basis to fight the temptations to give into immediate desires.
Reasons behind instant gratification
The most basic element in human beings that drives instant gratification is the tendency to see pleasure and avoid pain. This tendency is known as the pleasure principle. This was a term coined by world famous psychologist Sigmund Freud.
Freud said that humans are deeply driven to experience pleasure and a self-defeating behavior in the present (by giving up on temptation) does not seem to bring any benefit to humans. Delaying the gratification is therefore difficult.
Another psychologist Shahram Heshmat outlines 10 reasons why it is so difficult to sidestep delayed gratification.
Desire to avoid delay: It’s uncomfortable to engage in self-denial and all our instincts are to seize any opportunity for pleasure as it comes.
Uncertainty: We are born with nearly infinite certainty and trust in others, but over time we learn to be less sure of the reliability of others and our future; this uncertainty can cause us to value the less beneficial but certain-and-immediate over the more beneficial uncertain-and-long-term.
Age: Younger people have a tendency to be more impulsive, while older people with more life experience are better able to delay and temper their urges.
Imagination: Choosing delayed gratification requires the ability to envision your desired future if you forego your current desire; you must be able to paint a vivid picture of your future, else you can’t plan
Cognitive capacity: Higher intelligence is linked to a more forward-thinking perspective; those who are born with more innate intelligence have a tendency to see the benefits of delayed gratification and act in accordance. This should not be confused with procrastination.
Poverty: Even when we see the wisdom in delaying gratification, poverty can make the decision complicated and even more difficult; if you have an immediate, basic need that is begging to be met (e.g., food, shelter), it’s unlikely you will choose to forego that need in order to receive any future benefit.
Impulsiveness: Some of us are simply more impulsive or spontaneous than others, which makes delaying gratification that much more difficult; this trait is associated with problems like substance abuse and obesity.
Emotion regulation: Individual differences in emotion regulation also impact our tendency towards instant vs. delayed gratification; emotional distress makes us lean towards choices that will immediately improve our mood, and those who have developed emotion regulation problems are especially at risk.
Mood: Eeven those with healthy emotion regulation can be led astray by their current mood; we all experience bad moods, boredom, and impatience—all of which serve to make immediate desires that much more seductive.
Anticipation: Finally, the experience of anticipation can influence our decisions to delay or fulfil gratification. Humans generally like to anticipate positive things and dislike the anticipation of negative things, which can lead to decisions to put things off or to engage in them as quickly as possible to seek pleasure or avoid discomfort.
Examples of instant gratification
FOOD – The urge to indulge in a high-calorie treat instead of a snack that will contribute to good health.
SLEEP – The desire to hit snooze instead of getting up early to exercise.
SOCIALISING – The temptation to go out for drinks with your friends instead of finishing a paper or studying for an exam.
MATERIAL OBJECTS – The desire to buy a new car that will require a high-interest loan instead of waiting until you have saved enough money to buy it without taking a loan.
ROMANCE – The urge to spend all your time with a new beau instead of working towards your long-term goals.
ENTERTAINMENT –Watching a movie till late night even if you know you have to get up early the next day.
Pros and Cons
Honestly, instant gratification is not good or bad in itself. Fulfilling desires in the NOW or patiently waiting for something in the future is a very subjective choice and only an individual is fit to decide personally for themselves. The only question to ask yourself while making a decision is how much you are affecting your NOW versus your FUTURE by fulfilling your desire. For example, if you have diabetes and have been strictly prohibited from eating sweets or some food in particular and the doctor has given you a guarantee that you could recover from the disease, then giving into the temptation of your taste buds in the NOW could be disastrous. However, on the flip side if you have saved some money for trading in the stocks and are positive about good results but have a temptation to buy your favourite house and put it up on rent that could guarantee even better profits, then your instant gratification of choosing the house over stocks might be way more beneficial to you.
You have to see the effect of your present and future action and decide for yourself which of those two will bring you better results.
I won’t sugarcoat it (pun intended)—saying no to immediate gratification is no easy feat. If it was, we would all be trim, healthy, and have a reasonable amount of money in our savings account.
A few ways to take the best decision include empathizing with your future self, making some pre-commitments, breaking down big goals into smaller and manageable chunks and overcoming procrastination.
When you are torn between instant and delayed gratification, take a moment to think about your future mental state. How would you feel with the action you are choosing to take? Will you be happy with your decision you took right now?
Another way is to make some decisions to take certain actions over a course of time in the future. This will prevent you from taking haphazard actions in the NOW and give you a better understanding of what you must do over a course of time, saving yourself from both immediate and delayed gratification.
Breaking down long-term goals into shorter goals can go a long way in preventing you from making the tough choice between instant and delayed gratification. When your goals are expanded and scheduled into small chunks over a course of time, then the completion of your desires and achievements of results, both come together and regularly. Instead of waiting for the profits at the end of the year, you can start reaping small profits from the very NOW, giving you both immediate satisfaction as well as readying you for the big results in the future.
Overcoming procrastination is a huge action in preventing the negative effects of instant gratification. This is because procrastination is a stress coping mechanism. And when you finish a task just before the deadline in a panic mode, you neither achieve neither the instant desire nor the fruits of a delayed gratification. Procrastinators miss out on the pleasure experience of either of the NOW or FUTURE. Because it is only Panic.
“Everyone wants instant gratification: you have to have everything your parents had right away.” – Jim Flaherty
We are the millennial generation and are regularly blamed and abused for being the generation of instant gratification. Blame it on the internet, the social media, the entertainment industry, fast food chains, yes we are the generation of instant gratification. But is it all bad? And is it really true?
Millennials are the generation generally agreed to be those born in the 1980s and early 1990s – who grew up with much more advanced technology than any previous generation. They didn’t all have cell phones in their tweens, but they likely came of age with a connection to the internet that facilitated instant (or near instant, if you had dial-up) messaging.
Millennials get a lot of flak for their tendency towards instant gratification but ask a millennial about instant gratification and you might get an answer about how much longer this generation is waiting to get married, have children, buy a house, or dig out of student debt. To be sure, millennials don’t get everything they want on demand – and are actually more patient when it comes to certain things. The only thing they need instantly is fast internet, communication and entertainment streaming.
Therefore, it is not about whether millennials are the generation of instant gratification. The fact is that notion of instant gratification changes over time. Take a moment to remember the generation of your parents and grandparents. Every previous generation thinks that the subsequent generation is faster, smarter, and spoiled, and of course demanding of their desires being fulfilled in the NOW. And this is true. The definition of the “instant gratification generation” is relative, such that whatever generation you were born into seems normal to you, while younger generations likely seem spoiled and entitled to immediate satisfaction.
So, whichever generation you belong to, do not worry. You will always be perceived differently by other age groups. The decision between delayed and instant gratification is yours alone. Neither is good nor bad, simply relative to what you want and very subjective.
Aditi Raman Shridhar is an Indian journalist, therapist and health instructor.