Some people just don’t know when to have a good time. They habitually put off pleasure with the hope that they’ll get a greater reward later, and in the process they condition themselves not to enjoy anything. Contentment becomes scarcer than Ben and Jerry’s Dulce de Leche ice cream in hell.
I call this chronic delay of gratification. It’s addictive, exclusive, and can lead to the toleration of unnecessary suffering.
I have a couple of intriguing stories to tell you about how this plays out, but before we can get to those, we need to clarify what we mean by gratification.
Four Types of Gratification
Dictionary definitions for gratification aren’t very satisfying. They run the gamut from immediate pleasure to the fulfillment that comes with reward. So, I’ll propose four basic, overlapping sources of gratification:
1. Immediate pleasure: sex, food, fun, sensuality, hot baths, music, spectator sports, good stories, rest
2. List-slaying: completing practical, mundane chores, cleaning, maintaining, administrative tasks
3. Mastery: engaging in challenging projects, creating, repairing, achieving
4. Meaning: knowing that what you’ve done helps others
Any of these, taken to extremes, can turn negative. Think promiscuity, boredom, overcontrol, and total self-sacrifice. But in healthy doses, these are what make life good. Ideally we achieve a balance between them. Over-emphasizing any one may exclude others.
Chronic Delay of Gratification
When people talk about delay of gratification, they’re usually referring to delaying Type 1, Immediate Pleasure: if you can wait, you can get two marshmallows instead of just one. Which is usually considered to be a pretty good thing. You’ll work hard, get a good job and marry either Monica Bellucci or Manu Bennet, depending on your preference.
Not so fast. It doesn’t always work that way.
Delay does not predict success.
In fact, too much delay of gratification can lead to repressing all four types of gratification, which I don’t think anyone would call successful.
Each time the delayer puts off gratification they reward themselves with a miniscule mental M&M so that the delay itself becomes gratifying—at first. Repeated delay of gratification morphs into the gratification of delay, a form of emotional dyslexia in which delay is valued as if it were the gratification.
Putting good stuff off can bring with it a certain cold, dull thrill, especially when you feel like you’re ripping through a list and getting things done. And delaying gratification might seem like the right thing to do, which has a certain righteous gratification to it.
But it’s deceptive. It doesn’t satisfy for long. What the shift to the gratification of delay does bring is unfulfilled longing. Like many pharmacological substances, it creates craving which it cannot fulfill. It’s insidious, progressive and addictive.
Then the question is, does the delayer look for gratification elsewhere or just remain miserable?
As you may surmise, it’s different for different folks. But the pattern I most often notice with my patients is that when Type 1, Immediate Pleasure, is denied, Type 2, List-Killing, goes into overdrive and tries to act like it could serve as a substitute. People who do this like having things to check off their list and will even make things up to put there in the hope that they can get more gratification.
Some people invest primarily in Type 3 Gratification (Mastery) or Type 4 Gratification (Meaning), often with more satisfaction. However they may also do this to the exclusion of Immediate Pleasure (Type 1) and dealing with practical issues (Type 2).
Mastery and Meaning may also be permanently postponed because they seem both dispensable and far too gratifying (therefore too indulgent). But, as I’ve observed in many of my clients, if they do allow themselves to pursue Mastery and Meaning, they may focus on what could possibly go wrong rather than what will probably go right, not allowing themselves to savor the rewards.
Here’s an example.
Roots of the Crisis
I came across some of the cultural roots of the problem the other day when I was rummaging around in the stacks of the main branch of the New York Public Library, the imposing one on Fifth Avenue near my Manhattan office. I happened to find the sole remaining copy of the long-lost Dialogue of Disuadia, an ancient Greek text, stuck between two volumes of romantic poetry that hadn’t been touched for a century. Putting it there was clearly meant to conceal it from any reasonable person with a desire for serious research. I have my suspicions about why it was hidden, but we can’t go into that right now.
In case you didn’t know, Disuadia was a little-known Greek philosopher, rumored to have had Dionysus for her father, and Arete, a mortal and a famous philosopher herself, for her mother.
Scholars knew the document existed because there are several important references to it in other texts, but somehow they couldn’t find the actual text. Well, I did, here it is, and I don’t care if you don’t believe me.
It’s just a fragment, but we can easily catch her drift. Revealed in this short document is both the source and cure of the chronic delay of gratification.
The Dialogue begins when a middle-aged man named Adhæsius, a wealthy merchant, has come to the Lyceum in Athens hoping for guidance with a problem, ideally from Socrates. But it seems that Socrates is out for the day, meeting with his agent. Something about an advance copy of a mockumentary for the History Channel gone way off the rails. In any case, Adhæsius has to settle for the Philosopher-on-Duty, Disuadia.
The Dialogue of Disuadia
Adhæsius: I’m trying to understand something Socrates said. He was talking about how important temperance is, and I recognized it as the tool I’ve used all my life to try to quell my anxiety. I used to feel good when I ate the broccoli before the banana bread, put off sleeping until all my accounts were accounted for, and waited until my birthday to achieve amorous congress with my wife. It just seemed right. I was in control of myself. It helped me feel like I was a good person.
But now it seems I’ve lost the capacity to feel good about anything. I delay, but I’m no longer able to feel the gratification from that delay. I’m feeling a great sense of urgency to find fulfillment. Temperance and fulfillment seem to be in conflict. So, I’m stuck.
Disuadia: Tell me, Adhæsius, what do you think Socrates meant by temperance?
A: Self-restraint. Controlling my desires. I was so bowled over by what he said that I got distracted and didn’t hear the rest of his lecture. But it seemed pretty clear to me he was saying that I should always put off feeling good. I should always delay gratification.
I’m afraid I won’t be a virtuous man, so I’ve been practicing restraint vigorously. I fear I’ll come unglued if I stop. But now it seems like the delay never gets me to the gratification. I don’t let myself feel happy until everything is fixed. And since there’s always something else to be fixed, I never feel happy. Even taking care of chores and doing things for other people, which used to feel good, don’t anymore. Will I ever feel fulfilled?
D: Not if you make a religion out of delaying gratification.
A: Come again? I’m confused.
D: Good. We’re making progress.
A: But Socrates said—
D: You’ve taken the one line you heard him say and made a sacred vow out of it. Despite your claim that it quells your anxiety, it seems to deny you the very thing you thought being virtuous would bring, serenity.
D: You’ve misinterpreted Socrates to say that austerity is the path to being virtuous, and therefore to quelling your anxiety about being a virtuous man.
A: But what am I supposed to do? This is how I feel secure!
D: Secure from what?
A: Well, secure from the accusations of not being a virtuous man.
D: Who said you weren’t a virtuous man?
A: Well, no-one, yet, but they could accuse me at any second!
D: Congratulations! You’ve managed to avoid a bad reputation and incarcerated your soul in the process! Tell me, what would they say about you?
A: That I had failed to exercise restraint and given in to pleasure.
D: What sort of pleasure?
A: Any pleasure!
D: Praise be to Zeus! With just two words you’ve revealed your entire self-denial complex! You’ve taken a small part of what Socrates said and, desperate to defeat your insecurity, used it to forge a shield of abstinence to protect against accusations only you have made.
After you tuned out Socrates’s lecture, he explained that he was talking about the excess of bodily pleasure, and you’ve applied his ideas to reasonable pleasures of the soul as well. Of course you feel urgency! You’ve put your soul in prison and it wants to get out! The algorithms of the soul are based not on social approbation but on recalling what’s most important. Temperance is only a means to an end. But you cling to it as if it were your soul.
* * *
There’s more to the dialogue, but I suspect you’ve got the gist. In an attempt to deal with his insecurity about himself, Adhæsius laid down restrictive neural pathways each day, conditioning himself to chronic delay of gratification. He wiped out all four types of gratification because he thought feeling good was the danger.
Chronic Delay of Gratification and the Compulsive Personality
Most humans have the capacity to delay gratification. But those with obsessive-compulsive personality rely on it to an unhealthy degree.
In fact, it’s one of the characteristics that differentiates those with OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) from those with OCPD (obsessive-compulsive personality disorder). People with obsessive-compulsive personalities tend to do everything to extremes, except relax. People with OCD don’t put off their bliss the same way.
Sure, people with OCD will delay gratification until the house is clean. But the tendency is more comprehensive for people with OCPD. Any compulsive worth their obsessions will tell you that it’s not okay to relax until everything is fixed, organized, repaired, signed, sealed, delivered and perfected.
Which is never.
It’s procrastination. Procrastinating about feeling good.
Many of us live with the assumption that someday everything will be fixed, and then we can let down our guard and live happily ever after. This might be how we approach our day, week, season, or life. The goal-posts of gratification constantly move further away–unless we bring conscious attention to the tendency and challenge it.
Delaying the End of Suffering
This isn’t just about enjoyment though. Our phrase, delay of gratification, doesn’t convey how serious it can get. It also leads to the toleration of far more suffering than anyone should. For some, especially those whose self-respect, self-confidence and self-compassion have been eroded by family or culture, delay can lead to suffering like a gateway drug. Sensing that things aren’t right, users double down and try to adopt pain as a means to fulfillment. But instead it leads to self-denial and masochism.
Which shows up in my next example. And I promise not to make this one up.
Missionaries of Charity?
One example of how the habit of delaying gratification leads to masochism is what goes on behind the scenes in Mother Theresa’s religious order, The Missionaries of Charity.
Delaying gratification on earth in order to get to Heaven motivates many religious devotees. They may also be motivated to tolerate suffering so they can experience the rewards of helping the poor, or the rewards of a closer relationship with God here on earth. But too often, less healthy motivations (e.g. guilt and shame) commandeer the capacity to delay gratification and tolerate suffering, and the better intentions are lost.
According to documented reports of many nuns who spent time in the Missionaries of Charity and then left, sisters are encouraged to welcome and even cultivate suffering.
One former sister, Kelli Dunham, reports “One time we got up in the morning and Sister Milagro told us that if we really, really love Jesus, we would mortify ourselves by going to the bathroom only once a day.”
The lifestyle that’s demanded of the sisters, and those that come to them for help, is extremely austere. “Particular friendships,” even platonic ones between sisters, are forbidden. Patients and sisters are sometimes denied medications or hospital visits that could prevent pain and death. Funds that could be used to help are withheld.
To atone for their guilt for failing to meet these arduous standards, the sisters regularly use severe methods of penance, including self-flagellation, known as “the discipline.”
Mother Theresa’s goal was not to reduce suffering, but to accept it as a gift and use it to get closer to God. This can help reduce suffering–when the suffering is unavoidable and when meaning can be wrested from it. But as it turns out, too often the suffering isn’t necessary. Based on the reports of many who left the order, and even the personal letters of Mother Theresa herself, the severe suffering did not help them in their spiritual quest.
Returning to Pleasure
You might think my example dramatic, and I’ll cop to that. But the pattern is not so different for everyday people: chronic delay of gratification conditions us to tolerate meaningless suffering.
For some the delay has become so habitual that they can’t even name an activity they’d enjoy. That channel has been shut down.
Here are some steps to take to return to a more balanced life-style:
• Ask yourself what you get out of habitually delaying gratification. Does it really work? Is it worth it?
• Observe what you give priority to. Do “urgent” tasks (such as chores) eclipse more meaningful and gratifying projects?
• Which forms of gratification are most natural and fulfilling to you? Do you allow yourself to really savor them? Are there forms of gratification you forbid?
• Prepare for an uncomfortable withdrawal from austerity. Allowing yourself pleasure may not feel good at first.
• Start small. Appreciate the beauty in the mundane. Look for things that you don’t want to end. A good book or piece of music. Things that you aren’t just trying to get through.
• If not now, when?
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This blog is not intended to replace medical advice or treatment. The loss of interest in pleasurable activities can also be a sign of major depression. Please consult a mental professional for help if you are experiencing signs of depression.
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