Most high achievers have learned the art of delaying gratification to obtain their greater future goal. However, forgoing satisfaction today for fulfillment tomorrow can come with certain perils.
Psychologist and former president of the American Psychological Association, Phil Zambardo, developed a model known as Time Perspective Therapy that teaches individuals how to develop a more rewarding and fulfilling life by identifying how one perceives time and transitioning to a more effective perspective when needed.
The Marshmallow Experiment
One of the early influences of this model was his examination of a well-known study termed, The Marshmallow Experiment. This study was performed by Stanford psychologist, Walter Mischel in 1972 in an effort to examine the process of delayed gratification. Mischel offered a group of four-year-olds the choice of receiving a marshmallow now or two if they waited for him to return after a short-period. Needless to say, the majority of the children at the marshmallow immediately.
Mischel then interviewed the children fourteen years later and found those who had delayed eating the marshmallow had higher SAT scores, were more self-confident and resilient, and could handle stress more effectively.
Present-Hedonists vs. Future-Oriented
Mischel labeled the children who ate the marshmallow as present hedonists. He determined that it was not the children’s inability to delay gratification that caused them to eat the marshmallow but, rather, their perspective on life. These children believed it was better to live for now, not later.
Contrastingly, the children who delayed eating the marshmallow were classified as future-oriented. In every study, the future-oriented children outperform their peers in all categories from grades to income to mental health to levels of achievement. They are the peak performers in most of their industries.
Pros and Cons of Each
We are typically admonished by parents, teachers, and coaches to develop more of a future-oriented perspective. On the surface, this appears to be sage advice. However, anecdotal wisdom is not always correct. Both sets of classifications have their pros and cons.
Present hedonists’ strengths are being creative, spontaneous, and more open-minded. Furthermore, they tend to be better at building social networks and close relationships. The potential downside of being in this set is they are more prone to mental health problems, addictions, lower income levels, and greater difficulty dealing with failures and setbacks.
What The Research Says
The upside of being future-oriented is superior levels of both physical and mental health, better problem-solving ability, higher incomes and levels of career success, and increased resiliency. The downside is higher levels of burnout, heart attacks, gastro-intestinal issues, divorce, and difficulty maintaining long-term friendships.
Following over thirty years of research, Zimbardo found the happiest and most fulfilled individuals have learned to blend these two time orientation perspectives. The best combination is a balance of the spontaneity, exuberance and joy-filled living of the present hedonists and the determination, persistence, and long-term planning of the future-oriented.
The Key is Flow
The key is to avoid becoming saturated with immediate pleasure or burning out attempting to attain your long-term vision. Like so many things in life, the middle way is the path. The chief agent that can facilitate this objective is achieving flow.
Flow can help you delay gratification by making the work towards hitting your future goal pleasurable in and of itself. You can then bypass a great deal of the discipline required to obtain the skills necessary to reach peak performance. Moreover, to keep attaining flow states requires a continual push beyond what you can currently do, which drives you forward into the future.
Flow Expedites Learning
Furthermore, for the future-oriented, flow brings you completely into the present and into your body. You discover the power of now, which gets you out of future imagination and your head. Flow is the greatest motivating force on a neurological level due to the unparalleled release of pleasure chemicals in the brain. This results in an increased present-orientation to balance out the pursuit of long-term goals.
One final aspect of flow is related to learning and memory: the stronger the emotional experience related to an event, the greater the imprint into long-term memory. Additionally, flow increases the brain’s ability to recognize patterns and develop ever more complex mental representations, which is the primary factor in developing expertise and achieving peak performance. Lastly, the factors just mentioned greatly expedite the amount of time necessary to obtain high-level skill proficiency, which can insulate future-oriented individuals from burnout and sustain motivation.
As a result of this research, I would encourage you to do two things: identify your dominant time perspective and make the necessary changes to achieve the balance required to both attain and sustain peak performance; and harness flow states as the means to achieve this goal more effectively and rapidly.
John Hawkins Jr., M.S., L.M.H.C.
John has helped thousands of clients overcome the hidden internal blocks which had kept them from achieving their maximum potential. Furthermore, he has assisted them in gaining clarity of their true life purpose, identifying their gifts and talents, and developing lives of greater meaning and significance.