How to have a long, happy and successful life in one easy lesson

What if there were one single thing you could do that would:

  • get you better grades
  • help you live longer
  • reward you with a higher income
  • make you better adjusted in a variety of ways
  • increase your motivation
  • improve the quality of your relationships, at home and at work

Would you do it? Who wouldn’t?

Let me tell you about a famous series of experiments carried out in the 1970s, so famous that they’re still being carried out today (with the same results). And I’ll keep this as short as I can.

These experiments have come to be known as the Stanford Marshmallow Experiments*. Professor Walter Mischel and colleagues offered children aged 4 to 6 one treat of their choice (a marshmallow, a pretzel or a ‘cookie’ i.e. a sweet biscuit). They were told they could eat the treat now or, if they waited until the researcher returned (about 15 minutes), they could have a second one.

Dilemma: eat one marshmallow now or wait a bit and eat two marshmallows? (Here’s a cute video of these poor tempted children. There are several on YouTube and they’re adorable.)

In follow-up studies 18, 20 and 41 years later with the same children (aged mid-20s and mid 40s in the follow-ups), Professor Mischel and his colleagues found that the kids who successfully gave up something nice now (one marshmallow) and waited for something even nicer later (two marshmallows) had better lives by a number of measures than the kids who opted for the I want it NOW! I can’t wait! route. Compared to the I can’t wait! kids, the kids who waited:

  • did better in school and reached a higher education level
  • had a better life style (e.g. they ate better, exercised more, were more ‘clean living’ and therefore predicted to live longer
  • had fewer behavioural problems growing up
  • earned higher incomes as adults
  • were psychologically better adjusted in a variety of ways (e.g. they were happier)
  • were more self-motivated
  • had better careers
  • had more fulfilling relationships.

The conclusion:
1. Being able to wait is a life-long ability that begins around age 5.


2. Being able to wait predicts a better life outcome. 

So how does this translate to us (assuming not many 4 to 6 year-olds are reading this)?

Instead of ‘marshmallow’ think:

  • Should I pick up a cup of coffee from the cafe every morning on the way to work or should I save up for a great dress or a car further down the track?
  • Should I study or finish that report tonight or go out with my friends/watch TV/play a computer game?
  • Should I eat that chocolate bar or that apple?

The way you answer those questions predicts your future success.

But there is light on the horizon if you opted for ‘pleasure now’ over ‘more pleasure later’. You can–we all can–continuously build and strengthen our ability to delay gratification (that’s the technical term for it) in three main ways:

  1. You can distract your thoughts from the immediate, tempting pleasure by thinking about something else, especially something else you want more.
    Should I spend now or save for something better further down the track? Think about that snazzy red dress or shiny new car. Should I study now or play? Think about that interesting job you’re after. Should I eat the chocolate or the apple? Think about being slim, feeling great and looking great.
  2. Remove the temptation. Don’t walk by the cafe on your way to work; don’t have chocolate in the house.
  3. When you can’t remove the temptation, remove yourself from it. Turn off the TV and stand up and go to your desk and start studying; go for a walk or brush your teeth when that chocolate gets too much for you to resist.

The point is, the ability to defer gratification, to wait for a bigger prize, is a learned ability and we can all learn it. It’s probably an understatement to say that impulse control is an important skill to build if you want a successful and satisfying life.

Discussion questions

Are you a delayed gratifier who’s prepared to wait a bit for something bigger and better? Or maybe you need to practice that skill a bit more to strengthen it?

Delaying gratification is like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it becomes.



* Delay of Gratification in Children, Mischel, Walter; Shoda, Yuichi; Rodriguez, Monica L, Science; May 26, 1989; 244, 4907; Research Library

pg. 933