Delaying Gratification: Key to Character
Abundant research attests to how crucial to character the ability to delay gratification is. In fact, the ability to delay gratification may be the single most important indicator of a person’s overall psychological health. But in our hedonistic, gluttonous age, cultivating the will to forestall immediate gratification is a real challenge. That’s why it’s so important to start teaching and reinforcing this all-important character quality early on. The “fifth commandment” of sound character is about mastering our appetites and aversions. But we can’t possibly become the master of our appetites unless we first learn to delay gratification. And we can’t be masters of our aversions unless we’ve cultivated the will to bear discomfort. (I’ll have more to say on this later).
Delaying Gratification for the Right Reason
Developing good character is not just about forsaking immediate indulgence. Even the most character-disordered folks among us can do that when it serves their purpose. A seasoned thief, for example, might wait until just the right day and hour to pull off a heist. Real character is about replacing our primitive and primary allegiance to the pleasure principle itself with a true reverence for and commitment to the cause of life. It’s not that we have to abandon the “pleasure principle.” It’s more that we have to subordinate it. We must remove it from the position of primacy it occupies since the day we were born and give it a back seat to the greater cause of life. This momentous, voluntary, and life-changing choice is a true re-birthing in spirit. The person who enjoys to live as opposed to lives to enjoy lives on an entirely different plane.
The Will to Bear Discomfort
I remember vividly the moment our youngest son entered this world. He emerged from the womb kicking and screaming. He wailed so loudly and for so long everyone in the delivery room was chuckling. One nurse half-jokingly commented: “He must have been really comfortable where he was, because he’s sure not happy about where he is now!” My wife made a pitch to get her arms around him quickly, knowing he must simply be cold, afraid, and in need of reassurance. But the nurse responded: “I’ve delivered hundreds of babies and there’s a difference between fearful cries and angry cries. Trust me, this guy’s pitching a fit right now. But he’ll be okay once he gets used to things.”
Fortunately, the nurse was quite right. And our child would turn out to be one of those who early on acquired a capacity for something that some of his friends and acquaintances still, to their detriment, haven’t cultivated: the will to bear discomfort. And it’s that willingness on his part that’s enabled him to endure some of life’s toughest challenges. It’s the biggest reason he’s such a responsible young man.
Endurance and Character
To become master of your appetites and passions you have to learn to tolerate some pain. Learning to endure the unpleasant and deal with it in an adaptive manner is crucial to character. Unfortunately, I’ve known far too many individuals who failed to acquire the this capacity during their formative years. Some were diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder because of their apparent inability (i.e. unwillingness) to sustain their attention, on tasks they didn’t find sufficiently interesting or stimulating. Others were diagnosed with various disorders of impulse control, largely because they couldn’t tolerate a moment of boredom. I’ve also known many — both children and adults — who unfortunately fell into problematic patterns of substance use, because they were attracted to avenues of quick and easy discomfort escape. When I looked carefully beyond both the symptoms they presented and the various diagnoses that could rightfully be conferred, one thing disturbingly stood out: their intolerance of feelings or circumstances that were distressing and an excessive readiness for quick relief.
The will to bear discomfort is so crucial to character development that I’ll have much more to say about it in next week’s post. And I’ll have even more to say about it in my upcoming book with Dr. Kathy Armistead: The 10 Commandments of Character: How to Lead a Significant Life. And you’ll find more on this and related topics in several other articles on the blog as well as in my books.
Character Matters will be a live program this Sunday, August 28 at 7 pm EDT, so I can take your phone calls.