I Heart Indies

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Marshmallows and Self-Discipline

In a university study, children were presented with a dilemma: given a great big marshmallow on a plate, would they choose to eat it now, or would they be willing to wait and get two marshmallows in five minutes.  Only a few children were able to wait, most ate the marshmallow right away.  In the follow-up study, all the kids who ate the marshmallow right away ended up working for the kids who waited.

Not only were the wait-to-eat types financially more successful, they had better marriages, better health, and were happier than the eat-right-aways.  Self-discipline is clearly a valuable resource, and, thankfully, other studies show you can develop it even if by inclination, you're an eat-the-marshmallow-now type.

I think self-discipline does more for us than train us to be able to defer gratification - although this is very important.  You get a lot more satisfaction from something that was earned than something that was received.  Two marshmallows gained as a reward for waiting taste a lot better than one marshmallow that was just there on the plate.  In other words, not only are the payoffs bigger for self-discipline, we enjoy them more.  There's also a matter of contrast; if life is just a succession of one yummy marshmallow after another, our joy will begin to pale.  It's only by knowing we can't always have a marshmallow - even if it's by our own choice - that lets us savor the marshmallow when it finally comes around.

In Ancient Sparta, boys were taken from their parents at an early age, given one garment a year, and deliberately underfed.  I would never suggest raising children this way, but at least you can be sure grown Spartans were not inclined to bellyache about having to wait in line or being cut off in traffic.  They might slice you from nave to chaps, but they wouldn't waste time complaining about it.  Complaining is for people who've decided to be unhappy about something but lack the resources to do anything about it.

This is what strikes me troubling about 21st Century culture: it gives us no built-in opportunities to develop self-discipline, just the opposite.  If you're bored waiting for the next marshmallow, whip out the iphone and amuse yourself.  If you want something, get on the computer - chances are, you're on it right now anyway - and order it with a mouse-click.  It'll be there tomorrow.  Soon, thanks to Amazon drones, it'll be there even faster.  (Amazon calls its delivery service, "fulfillment."  Am I the only one who finds this disturbing?)  If real-life struggles are too tough, too complex, or too long-lasting to bother with, retreat into a video game, and you can conquer earth five times in an afternoon.

In short, we live in a world that promises instant gratification.  This observation is nothing new, but there's something really creepy about the way mass culture markets it.  In an early smart-phone commercial a desultory man sits moping on a rooftop as the announcer talks about life's lessons in disappointment.  In the background we see imaginative animated characters - such as a goofy blue-skinned critter with long eye-stalks - vanish one by one, symbolizing, I suppose, the death of our childhood dreams.  But then the grown-up is presented with a smartphone and a big smile replaces his expression of dissatisfaction as he begins surfing the internet or whatever he's doing.  The soundtrack strikes up "The Candyman" and two blue eye-stalks peep over the rooftop to watch.

The commercial is promising us, essentially, not just that the phone will make our lives better, but that it will transform the rest of our lives into candy: according to the song, one of the Candyman's recipes is taking a sunrise and "covering it in chocolate."  Eww.

Don't misunderstand, I love my iPhone, but there's something insidious about it, it and the rest of the our wonderful material comforts.  The world can be marshmallow, marshmallow, marshmallow if we let it, without the toughening experiences that are not merely part of life but an essential part of happiness.

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