Why delaying gratification makes you happier

Jodie Dickey is one of our dedicated caseworkers here at Friendship Works. As part of our constant efforts to incorporate the latest research and improve the quality of our services, Jodie recently attended a lecture at Gresham College. She has written this week’s blog based on a longitudinal study on children’s self control and how it affects their later successes in life.

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Have you seen this recent Haribo advert? Children are promised that if they can resist eating a Haribo sweet then they’ll be given another. Some of the kids hold out longer than others, but in the end they all give in to the sugary temptation. It’s a cute piece of marketing, but it also touches on a much broader concept…

Self control*: the ability to regulate one’s emotions, desires, and behaviours in the service of later rewards. Thinking before you speak or act, resisting temptation, and planning for the long-term goal even if it means missing out on something right now.

If you’re anything like me, you will be reading that definition with a cringe, thinking “I wish I had a little more of that self control”. But how important is self control, anyway? How much of an effect does it have on our lives? And just how important is self control for children?

These were some of the questions being discussed by Professor Terrie Moffitt from Kings College London when I attended her recent lecture at Gresham College. Professor Moffitt and her colleagues conducted a longitudinal study looking specifically at how children’s level of self control might predict their later success in life.

The research team proposes that self control is now more salient than ever – to reduce obesity and maintain fitness in a time of food abundance and sedentary jobs; to resist spending and save for old age in a time of sophisticated marketing and economic downturn; to maintain healthy relationships in a time of increasingly virtual living.

They studied a group of just over 1000 people in the city of Dunedin, New Zealand. They used observations by professionals, teachers, parents, and the children themselves to measure the children’s self control at 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11 years of age. The researchers identified those children with a lower measure of self control – children who, more so than their peers, act impulsively, struggle to wait for their turn, are easily distracted and frustrated, and who require constant attention and motivation from adults.

By conducting a variety of tests later in life (the participants are now 38 years old), the researchers showed that lower levels of self control in childhood are indeed associated with negative outcomes later in life. This correlation existed across such measures as health outcomes, substance dependence, financial outcomes, criminal convictions, life satisfaction, and even parenting skills of their own children. Interestingly, these effects bridged differences in gender, socio-economic background, and IQ scores. The results are now being replicated in a study of over 500 pairs of twins in the UK.

I was fascinated to hear about this study, and I sat there thinking, “How could our mentors help children improve their self control?” It’s an interesting question, but I think the answer is actually very simple: friendship and role models.

When I was growing up, I had adult role models in my life who taught me about planning for the future – I could either have a new t-shirt right now that my mum would choose and buy for me, or, if I wanted the t-shirt with the in-fashion brand on it (which of course I did!), I would have to save up my own pocket money to pay the difference. And how many times did I hear from my parents and teachers that “if you study for your exams now, you will have a good job when you’re older”?

Mastering self control is not something that can happen all at once; it takes lots of time and many little lessons along the way. Friendship can be an enormous support – friends encourage you to stay motivated when times get rough, they let you vent your feelings when you get frustrated, and they even teach you to wait your turn! We always knew that our mentors act as role models and friends in these ways, but it’s very encouraging to see that the self control that they teach now could be such an important factor in the later success of the young people they support.

 

*The concept of self control is prevalent in the behavioural sciences, but it goes by many names; it is termed “delay of gratification” in child psychology, “reward discounting” in economics, and “will power” in management science.