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Delayed gratification

“We’re not usually trying to be happy, we’re trying to avoid unhappiness” 

Sure, avoiding unhappiness is not the same as striving for happiness (or fulfillment), yet our day to day lives are structured more around avoiding unhappiness and pain than around fulfillment. This is also because we tend to seek instant gratification over long-term goals, and not all of us are good at the effort of delaying gratification, an ability that begins to show in four-year-olds. It’s well researched that this ability comes with positive outcomes such as health, happiness, and success. Delaying gratification is so important because it comes with a later, bigger reward. The most famous experiment addressing this ability is the marshmallow experiment, where kids were sat in a room with a marshmallow and told they will receive another if they resisted marshmallow numer one for 15 minutes. The kids that resisted showed remarkable advantages later in life. Now, while it’s normal to learn to delay gratification as we grow up, it is always more effortful than instant gratification, and the temptation to slack off in little things never stops. Instant gratification is not the only problem with long-term goals; the other big one is pain avoidance. Pursuing long-term goals comes with a little suffering in the short term, something very unattractive to put up with. When in relationships or raising kids pain avoidance may even be amplified. We don’t dive into every conflict because we’re not willing to put up with the effort and pain, and we may not put in the work our relationship deserves. The same is true for parenting: I’m hanging out with parents a lot and find it shocking how much parenting resolves around navigating dangers, instead of focusing on discoveries and creativity.  

Let me give you an example of where delaying gratification can get you: Yesterday, I talked to a colleague who built a social work project which now finally gets stable financing. She had tears in her eyes when she said: “I am fifty-four years old and I have already fulfilled my destiny. I am calmer now and thinking about what to do next. Maybe something creative, just for fun.” This is one of the most beautiful testimonies of a fulfilled life I ever heard. Working close together with her for years I know the insane strain it meant for her to fight for 14 years, never knowing if her project would be there in a couple of months. She went on to tell me that deep in her heart, she always believed it would become something lasting one day. She is one of the strongest women I ever met. 

So, how can we see if our actions are orientated towards finding happiness or avoiding unhappiness? Maybe these statements can be an inspiration and motivation for you on your path to your long-term goals: 

Living a successful life means to focus on what you really want and act toward that  
This is a golden rule of success I have commented on in several other places. The only problem with this rule is, that it is can be deeply unpractical and frustrating. Who can really look at their day-to-day lives and find they are fully oriented toward bigger goals? Is writing this blog getting me there? Is reading it getting you there? Though this is a great goal to strive for for the brave at heart, it’s ok if you’re busy accepting your life in the here and now for the moment. 

Avoiding unhappiness can lead to fear-based decision making and, in a worst-case scenario, to the exact results that were meant to be avoided. 
I find this greatly encouraging. If you’re trying to avoid something horrible, here’s the best strategy: Do not think about it, don’t give it any attention. 

Striving for long-term goals comes at the cost of some suffering in the short term.  
Accept this suffering while taking your experience seriously and caring for yourself.  

Effectively avoiding unhappiness is more of a mindset than the act of navigating around potential causes of pain. 
Search for peace within yourself, instead of focusing on trouble-makers outside of you. 

Focus on relationships and put in the work if you do not want to become lonely in the long term  
Test your behaviors for patterns geared toward instant gratification and break the habits: go for lasting relationships.  

There’s plenty of ways to cause your own unhappiness, most of us are experts at that  
Which are your strategies for unhappiness? It may help to learn about them, as a first step to changing them and finally overcoming the underlying patterns. 

Finally, if you found yourself in some of the habits I described, understand that these are typical behaviors and take long to change. Do not force yourself to be someone you are not (yet). If you want to change habits, start with small symbolic acts and work your way up to bigger decisions. 


Carducci, Bernardo J. (2009). “Basic Processes of Mischel’s Cognitive-Affective Perspective: Delay of Gratification and Conditions of Behavioral Consistency”. The Psychology of Personality: Viewpoints, Research, and Applications. John Wiley and Sons. pp. 443–4. ISBN 978-1-4051-3635-8. 


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