What is delayed gratification?

What is delayed gratification?

What do one-click purchases, the "play-next" button, and the snooze button all have in common? 

They exemplify instant gratification: short-term rewards that give us pleasure at the moment but wear off quickly, making them addictive. So it is when you give in to your desires and get a boost of "pleasure hormones" like dopamine. Delayed gratification, on the other hand, is a long-term life skill for reaching your goals and finding long-term fulfillment [1].

The greek philosopher Aristotle saw that the reason so many people were unhappy was that they confused pleasure for true happiness.

Why do we tend to pursue pleasure over happiness?

Our brains are wired to prioritize short-term needs over long-term goals. Therefore, as soon as you see something potentially rewarding, dopamine compels you to pursue it. However, after the initial pleasure experience, the amount of dopamine drops, resulting in withdrawal and addiction. To override such impulse, willpower (related to the serotonin system) is required to mediate decision-making [2].

The well-known "Marshmallow experiment" conducted at Stanford University is a good example of instant vs. delayed gratifications. In the study, children were each given one marshmallow. They were told to either eat the marshmallow now (instant gratification) or wait 15 minutes and receive two marshmallows (delayed gratification) [3,4]. The children who waited for the second marshmallow without eating the first one "scored higher on standardized tests, had better health and were less likely to have behavior problems" [5,6].

mashmallow experiment

Photo Credit:  Walter Mischel

The powerful results of this experiment demonstrate how much your choices depend on the abstract notion of what is meaningful to you in the long run(controlled by willpower) versus what exciting thing is currently available to you (controlled by the dopamine system).

The good news is that the ability to delay gratification can be learned: adults can train their brains to wait [5]. In real life, delayed gratification keeps you accountable for long-term goals and motivates you to do things you want to procrastinate by coupling them with a perceivable reward.

Four steps to delayed gratification in real life:

  1. Start small and journal your goals.

People who vividly describe their goals in written form are 1.4 times more likely to accomplish their goals than people who don't. The increased cognitive processing involved in the writing process helps you remember better [7].

Use the SMART principle and your attention journal to write down your delayed gratification goals.

「 S.M.A.R.T. Principle」
Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bound

Example: A new bubble tea shop opened near your office, and you can't help buying drinks. To delay the gratification, you decide to wait until every Friday (time-bound) to indulge in one cup of bubble tea (measurable) to reward yourself for a week of hard work (realistic, achievable), and you will avoid walking past that shop on the other days (specific).

  1. Set promising gratifications

Scientists found that the trust that the reward will happen + the reward happening within a reasonable and definite wait time (i.e., a few days to weeks) are two important factors to motivate the "wait." You could utilize the anticipation of a promising reward to motivate yourself to accomplish unwanted tasks.

Note: Reward is an important component of habit forming. It reinforces routines and helps keep habits firmly in place.

  1. Use tools to take away temptations.

Set time limits on apps, put your phone on focus mode or phone bed from, i.e. 1-5 pm, and only scroll on social media outside of that timeframe.

Tips: Even when you're not using your phone, simply seeing your phone nearby in peripheral vision can distract you. So put it far out of sight, preferably in another room. [8]

  1. Practice gratitude

Write down three things you are grateful for in the "good morning" section of the journal. When you find yourself disappointed at not being able to be satisfied instantly, remind yourself that you have the privilege to obtain the reward, even if it requires a longer wait.

For example: Be grateful for having friends to hang out with and having the financial freedom to purchase certain things.


Finally, the more you work for a reward, the more fulfilling you will feel when you receive it. While delayed gratification can be a powerful tool to help you achieve long-term goals, it should not get in the way of self-care. It is the balance between giving yourself small treats here and there and resisting temptations to focus on the most important things that help us achieve what we want in the long run.


[1] What is delayed gratification and why is it so important in life. tonyrobbins.com. (n.d.). Retrieved March 23, 2022.

[2] Korb, A. (2011, October 28). Marshmallows and monoamines. Psychology Today. Retrieved March 23, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/prefrontal-nudity/201110/marshmallows-and-monoamines

[3] Mischel W, Ebbesen EB, Zeiss AR. Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1972, vol. 21 (pg. 204-18)

[4] Mischel W, Shoda Y, Rodriguez ML. Delay of gratification in children, Science, 1989, vol. 244 (pg. 933-8)

[5] Stahl, A. (2019, August 20). The truth about instant gratification in business and life. Forbes. Retrieved March 23, 2022, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/ashleystahl/2019/08/20/the-truth-about-instant-gratification-in-business-and-life/?sh=f21383b4b136

[6] Cohen, I. S. (2017, December 26). The benefits of delaying gratification. Psychology Today. Retrieved May 24, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-emotional-meter/201712/the-benefits-delaying-gratification

[7] Murphy, M. (2018, April 15). Neuroscience explains why you need to write down your goals if you actually want to achieve them. Forbes. Retrieved March 23, 2022, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/markmurphy/2018/04/15/neuroscience-explains-why-you-need-to-write-down-your-goals-if-you-actually-want-to-achieve-them/?sh=633d837a7905

[8] Thornton, B., Faires, A., Robbins, M., & Rollins, E. (2014, November 30). The mere presence of a cell phone may be distracting. Social Psychology. Retrieved March 23, 2022, from https://econtent.hogrefe.com/doi/abs/10.1027/1864-9335/a000216

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