When I was younger we ate Sunday dinner at my aunt’s house with the whole family. I have a vivid memory of one of these Sunday’s in which my mother, cousin, aunt, and myself were baking cookies for dessert. At seven years old, I was a mischievous troublemaker with a riotous sweet tooth, and extra eyes were on me as ingredients changed hands.
My older cousin, the most vigilant of the three, quickly became bored and moved on to other affairs. My mother and aunt would periodically yell, “Do not eat the dough! You have to wait” just for good measure. I would smile and nod, and dump some more chocolate chips into the mix.
It was a classic battle of wills in which they would eventually wear down and turn their backs, and no sooner would I take a mouthful of chocolate chip covered cookie dough right off of the mixing spoon.
I just could not wait for the cookies to bake; I had an overwhelming impulse that I had no control over.
In the mid 1960’s, thirty years prior to my cookie baking debacle, Walter Mischel, a Standford Psychologist conducted his own impulse control experiment with cookies. In Mischel’s experiment children were given a cookie and told that they could eat the cookie immediately, or wait 15 minutes and receive a second cookie.
The results of the experiment showed that children who were unable to wait the 15 minutes were at higher risk of obesity and addiction, while children who were able to wait generally did better later in life. The one’s who delayed gratification had higher SAT scores, better health, and higher incomes.
Impulse control is the single most effective tool we can implement to better our lives, because it is at the root of almost all of life’s major problem areas.
Many young people jump at the highest paying job they are offered right out of college or graduate school. We take jobs with fewer benefits and less time off in an area we don’t enjoy because it will pay more money and satisfy the immediate desire to make more money. We will rarely take a job we enjoy if it means less pay. In the short term the extra money feels good, but over the course of a year, sometimes less, people are burnt out and unfulfilled.
We do the same with love and expect immediate results. I have never been in a long-term relationship with someone I became intimate with after only a date or two. My experience has always been that relationships develop slowly over time, usually beginning as friendships.
Society today is fast paced and so instantly gratifying that it is damaging to human relationships and fulfillment. Want love? Swipe right on tinder and you can find a match today. Want to feel good? Post a selfie on Instagram and watch the “likes” stream in, boosting esteem with every notification received. There’s no need to wait for anything anymore and we are not happier as a result.
Mischel’s study left us another nugget of information on impulse control, and that was how the children actually controlled their impulses. The kids who held out did not torture themselves by looking at the cookie for fifteen minutes. Instead they distracted themselves while they waited. They sang, played, or did anything besides sit and stare at the cookie.
I think to the past of other impulsive decisions I have made and reflect on their pro’s and con’s. I do a quick analysis of the outcomes of those impulsive decisions. At best the decision made on impulse did not fulfill me like I thought it would, and at worst it created a mess in my life that I had to clean up later.
Hobbies are another tool I use to keep my mind off of whatever the new shiny thing in front of me is. Many times I have been faced with a problem that I perceive needs an immediate solution, but I’ll go for a run first, or do some writing. When I am finished, the immediate problem I perceived wasn’t really a problem at all and my first idea of a solution would’ve surely created a problem.
The old cliché tells us to “sleep on it” when faced with big decisions, and while it tends to be overlooked because it is a cliché, it became one because it is true.