Many of you have heard of the now-famous Marshmallow Experiment of the 1960s. Five- and six-year-olds were presented with a marshmallow, and one choice: if they resist eating the marshmallow for 15 minutes, they would receive a second marshmallow, and could eat both. While this experiment is sometimes viewed as an exercise in patience, it is more aptly portraying discipline and its importance in delayed gratification.
Delayed gratification is something that comes up again and again in our lives. Watch Netflix now, or go for a run? Order a pizza, or cook a healthy meal? Spend our paychecks as soon as we get them, or save our money? More often than not, being able to implement discipline will leave us better off. Unfortunately, our society specializes in immediate gratification. If we want to laugh, a video is a click away. If we want to feel loved, a social media post can give us an immediate emotional boost. If we yearn to be accepted, buying something takes no time at all. Our society teaches us to eat the marshmallow right away, and it rewards us with endorphins.
From a distance, we understand that going for that run, choosing a healthy meal over fast food, or saving our money will be of greater value to us in the long term. And in a lot of cases, they will make us happier! But the deck is stacked against us. Not only is eating the marshmallow right away the easiest path, but advertisements, pop culture and social media convince us to choose the metaphorical marshmallow, and our technology allows us to do so immediately.
We all know the gravity that social media, fast food, online shopping, and Youtube videos have on us. They are fun and easy and tempting and immediately gratifying. But in a lot of cases, our use of these things is not in our long-term interest. What is even more concerning is that these forces are even stronger on kids. While some five- and six-year-olds were able to muster up discipline to ignore the marshmallow, the instant gratification inherent to our technology is much harder to resist. Social media addiction, gaming disorder and internet addiction disorder are forms of psychological dependence that are rapidly growing among the young people of our society.
So here’s the kicker: the participants from the Marshmallow Experiment were followed and studied for 40 years after the initial experiment in delayed gratification. The ability to resist immediate gratification was a strong predictor of better life outcomes.
“The ability of a young child to delay gratification predicted a lengthy list of positive outcomes, including lower levels of substance abuse and better social skills.” -Audrey Monke, Happy Campers (137)
In addition, the participants who were able to delay gratification tended to have higher SAT scores, more active prefrontal cortexes, healthier body mass indices, and higher educational attainment later in life.
Audrey Monke uses this landmark study to introduce the importance of responsibility in the development of young people. In order to be able to better delay gratification, it is critical for kids to be capable in taking on responsibilities. Having responsibilities introduces young people to situations in which they can choose delayed gratification, enact some discipline, and feel competence and control in their lives.
At camp, kids are removed from the comfort of their parents, and receive opportunities to be self-reliant and self-disciplined. Even tasks as simple as cleaning their cabin and organizing their gear build more capable mindsets. When tents have to be set up and gear has to be put away before swimming in the river, campers are taking critical steps towards being more prepared and capable adults. The same goes for returning to the beginning of a portage instead of sitting down, learning the fundamentals of sailing before skippering a boat, and passing a swim test before going water skiing.
Monke states that camps can be vital environments for building the skills to be self-reliant and disciplined, but she also emphasizes that these skills can be built at home too. For people young and old, at camp and at home, the ability to make small sacrifices allow us to benefit in the long term.
“Success usually comes down to choosing the pain of discipline over the ease of distraction. And that’s exactly what delayed gratification is all about.” -Audrey Monke