In popular culture there is this idea that people tend to seek instant gratification and that people in wealthy nations have access to anything they want with a tap in their phones. In psychology researchers have studied for decades the correlation between a person’s ability to delay gratification and their likelihood of success in the future.
Now let’s that the current body of research is right and that being able to delay gratification improves your likelihood of being successful in the future (however you measure success). Furthermore, let’s assume that our frontal lobes are not well equipped to help us control this need for short-term gratification and that our monkey brains tend to win.
If this is for the most part true, then there might be little that we can do. We either can or cannot control our impulses. However, that doesn’t seem right to me so lately I’ve been thinking about what is gratification and whether we can substitute it with something else. My point is that gratification is like electricity in that it fuels our brain’s limbic system. Now gratification like electricity can come from a variety of sources (e.g. wind, hydraulic, nuclear, geothermal, etc.).
Thus, if we can change our source of gratification to something that’s healthier and more sustainable we should be able to fulfill our need for short term gratification AND be successful in the future.
This might seem a little abstract so let me try to give an example. Let’s say that you feel really good every time you eat ice cream but you know that long-term it’s not good for you. Thus, you could try to have another source of gratification that substitutes the “high” that you get from eating ice cream. For example, instead of going to buy ice cream you can go go for a walk with your best friend or go shopping. What constitutes an “effective” substitute will vary depending on the individual but the point is that you can substitute your source of gratification with something that isn’t as dangerous for you long-term as your current source of gratification.
Thinking about gratification in this way has been particularly useful for me as I think about long term goals that require 5-10 years to materialize. Long term goals with such a long time horizon are hard for me because if I don’t feel that I am constantly making progress I lose motivation. Although I might not see the progress that I am making towards these goals every single day, I have been able to stay motivated by seeking short term gratification from my friends’ support and journaling every day. It’s still too early for me to tell whether this approach will be successful but so far understanding my different sources of gratification has helped me a lot.