One of the most classic experiments in the history of psychology is “the marshmallow test.” In the 1960’s, Stanford professor Walter Mischel placed a marshmallow in front of a group of four-year-olds and told them, “I have to leave for a few minutes. You can eat the marshmallow now, but if you can wait until I’m back, you can get TWO marshmallows.” You can see an amazing video of these kids’ struggle between immediate gratification and long-term happiness here:
For decades now, people have used the marshmallow test as an indicator of long-term success. Those who were able to wait on the marshmallow tended to be more competent across a variety of fields, including social, emotional and academic disciplines.
The problem is that long-term success often comes at the cost of short-term pleasure. We want to lose weight, but that means forgoing dessert. We want to have a clean house, but that means less time watching television. We want to start our day bright and early, but that means leaving our comfy bed when it’s still cold and dark.
That’s why an update on the marshmallow test can help us move beyond this false dichotomy. Nick Tasler, in a post on Psychology Today, shares that some new research suggests that if we can find small pleasures on the road to long-term happiness, we’ll be more like to stay on the path.
As he says,
[T]he number one predictor of work engagement is a phenomenon…call[ed] “the progress principle.” At work, we throw ourselves into challenging projects not because our boss blankets us with warm fuzzies or because we think it will add another zero to the east side of our paycheck. More than anything else, people stay engaged in hard work when they feel like they are making progress on a project that matters…
The secret to success in the marshmallow test of life and work is not about delaying gratification. It is about discovering gratification in every situation. It’s about leveraging the unparalleled ability of the human mind to find—and focus on—small sources of gratification in any set of circumstances.
Motivation can be hard to come by, and while our rational brains might tell us what we ultimately want, our emotional brains are the ones making the minute-by-minute decisions. We need to harness the emotional power of gratification in the short-term in order to achieve the desires we want for the long-term.
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