Why is it so hard to resist a slice of chocolate cake when trying to lose weight? How can it affect happiness?
There are platters of delicious food, heart-warming dessert, healthy salads, and colorful fruits beautifully laid out in front of you at a dinner party. But you are trying to lose weight and get healthier. What do you do?
If you manage to stick to your diet plan, then congratulations! You will likely reach your goal and shed the unwanted pounds.
However, not everyone can resist these types of temptations, even though they know the benefits of healthy eating. A study showed that happiness increased with eating fruits and vegetables. A more recent study concluded that eating more fruits and vegetables not only benefited physical health in the long run but also mental well-being in the short term. Unfortunately, our rational minds are often outcompeted by our emotional impulses.
What can help to resist temptation?
Delayed gratification plays a pivotal role in impulse control. An article published by The Journal of Happiness Studies 2021 showed that individuals with the ability to delay gratification and focus on the long-term benefits of healthy eating were more likely to eat more fruits and vegetables and exercise, which in turn made them feel happier. Testing for diversity across gender, income groups, education, age groups, and rural/urban dwellers, the researchers found that while the size of the positive impact may vary with each category, the ability to delay gratification remained an important part of goal achievement.
What is delayed gratification?
Delayed gratification means resisting an impulse to take an immediate reward in the hope of gaining a greater reward in the future.
Eating that slice of delicious chocolate cake right now might feel satisfying for a short time while you’re eating it, but if we cannot resist the temptation this time, then it is very likely that there will be another time, followed by another. The entire plan of healthy eating for weight loss will likely fail if we cannot establish this habit. The ability to delay gratification enables us to give up what we want now (that slice of chocolate cake) for something better in the future (a smaller waistline)!
Delayed gratification is important in almost all areas of life.
A 40-year Stanford research following hundreds of children from preschool to adulthood found that the participants with the ability to delay gratification were more successful in almost all facets of life. In the 1960s, Stanford professor Walter Mischel began conducting a series of psychological studies, which became known as the Marshmallow Experiment. The researchers followed the participating children over a span of 40 years, from 4-5 years of age through adolescence into adulthood. The children who were willing to delay gratification ended up having higher SAT scores, lower levels of substance abuse, better health, better responses to stress, better social skills, and generally better scores in a range of other life measures.
What is the Marshmallow Experiment?
The experiment had each child sit in a private room, accompanied by only a single marshmallow placed on the table. The researcher told each child that if the child did not eat the marshmallow while he was away from the room, then the child would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. So, the choice was simple: one marshmallow now or two marshmallows later.
The tests demonstrated the challenge of delayed gratification. Some of the children ate the marshmallow as soon as the researcher left the room. Some tried to refrain themselves but eventually gave in a few minutes later. Only a few of the children managed to hold out for the reward.
The surprising discovery of the Marshmallow Experiment came years later. The researchers conducted follow-up studies for 40 years and tracked each participant's progress in a number of areas. The researchers found that the children who were able to delay gratification were far more successful in almost all areas of life than the children who caved to temptation.
What determines our ability to delay gratification?
Our ability to delay gratification is neither genetic nor predetermined. It is a learned behavior affected by the experiences and environments we are exposed to.
Researchers at the University of Rochester replicated the Marshmallow Experiment with a new group of children and an interesting twist. Before offering the children the marshmallow, the researchers split the children into two groups.
One group was exposed to a series of unreliable experiences. The researcher gave the children a small box of crayons and promised to bring a bigger box, but never did. Then he gave the children a small sticker and promised to bring a better selection, but never did.
The other group was given totally reliable experiences. The children received the promised rewards.
These experiences had a significant impact on the subsequent marshmallow test. The children in the unreliable group had no reason to trust that the researcher would bring a second marshmallow, so they did not wait long before they ate their marshmallows.
Meanwhile, the children in the reliable group had unknowingly trained their brains to believe that delayed gratification was worth the wait. This group of children waited, on average, four times longer than the unreliable group, and the majority of them were able to receive a second marshmallow.
This study has demonstrated that while the ability to delay gratification can be trained, it is the uncertainty of gaining a future reward that makes giving up an immediate pleasure so hard.
Trust is a critical factor.
Research led by psychologists Joseph Kable and Joseph McGuire of the University of Pennsylvania found that our uncertainty regarding the time at which future rewards will materialize is what makes delaying gratification such a challenge.
In other words, we do not know when we will get a reward — or if we will ever get it at all. If we give up that chocolate cake now, we still might not lose any weight tomorrow. But that slice of cake in front of us is real for sure.
In summary, delayed gratification requires the trust that (a) the reward is worth the wait, and (b) the reward will arrive within a tolerable wait time.
How can we become better at delayed gratification?
Each person may have a different strategy to increase their ability to delay gratification. Here is our five-step strategy:
1. Pinpoint our goal.
We find it less difficult to delay gratification when focusing on the benefits of a future reward. So, it is important for us to know what we are working towards.
If you are trying to eat a healthy diet to lose weight and be healthier, then both weight loss and better health can be your future rewards. Having your primary end goal in mind (a smaller waistline or a life full of energy) will help you to stay laser-focused on the future benefits that really matter to you.
2. Check in with our values.
When we feel tempted, we need to remind ourselves of why we are trying to reach our goal. So, when we set our goal, we should also check in with our values to understand how important the future reward means to us.
If you feel tempted by that slice of chocolate cake, remind yourself why you should cut down on eating sugary food. Is it because you value a life full of energy without relying on medications?
3. Take baby steps and start small.
It is difficult to feel the full benefits of a future reward if we are uncertain when we will get them. So, we take baby steps towards our end goal and we start with something smaller and easier to attain in a shorter period. The success of each baby step strengthens our trust that getting that ultimate future reward is possible.
If losing 20 pounds of body weight is your goal, break it into a series of smaller goals that are realistically attainable. Losing five pounds in one week would not be realistic but losing one pound a week would be attainable. Even though the weekly progress sounds small, as you manage to achieve your goal every week, you will feel more confident in your ability to delay gratification for a greater reward.
If you want to clear the junk in your home office to have space for a treadmill but you have not been able to resist Netflix when you have free time, try to de-clutter just one tiny section a day. A drawer can be a section for one day and you can start with the smallest drawer. Take a small step each day and you will soon have the space for a treadmill.
4. Don't break the chain.
When we do a certain thing consistently for a period of time, it becomes a habit, meaning it does not require much thinking or willpower to do. Maintaining consistency is crucial to building habits. As actor and comedian Jerry Seinfeld said, "Don't break the chain!" Putting a checkmark on a calendar to indicate consistency is a helpful visualization tool to show ourselves the chain of successes. When we feel less motivated to work towards our goal, we think of the chain.
If you have built a habit of eating low-sugar food, your taste buds are likely to have adjusted accordingly. The chocolate cake that used to look tempting might be too sweet for you today, so not choosing the chocolate cake becomes an easy decision to make. Build your chain of successes and put a checkmark on your daily calendar when your sugar intake is within your limit that day.
5. Celebrate success.
One of the challenges of delayed gratification is that we are uncertain when a future reward will arrive — or even if it will ever arrive. Giving ourselves a pat on the back every time we do a good job is encouraging and motivational. We can give ourselves a small reward when we achieve several baby steps. The small reward should be meaningful to us to drive us to work towards it. And the baby steps must have a certain level of challenge, in order to train our brain muscles. Finally, we must keep our promise and reward ourselves every time we make it.
If you can de-clutter all the drawers of your desk, then celebrate your success by allowing an extra hour of watching Netflix or going out for dinner on the weekend. Give yourself a pat on the back!
Delaying gratification is hard. However, the ability to defer our immediate, short-term pleasures to pursue greater, long-term rewards in the future has been proven pivotal to almost all areas of our lives affecting our life satisfaction and happiness. To us, there seem to be more upsides than downsides.
Try a few different strategies to increase your willpower and find a method that works for you. You might just be surprised how much stronger your willpower can be and how much happier you can be with a bit of patience.