Joachim de Posada’s short presentation at TED really caught my attention the other day. It’s only a few minutes so, if you can, you should watch it before reading the rest of this post.
If you don’t have time to watch the video, basically, he talks about a number of psychological experiments where they put young children in a room with a marshmallow, told them that they would be left alone in the room for fifteen minutes and, if they did not eat the marshmallow, then they would get a second marshmallow at the end of the time. Two out of every three kids couldn’t resist and ended up eating the marshmallow even knowing that they could have doubled their amount of marshmallow enjoyment if they had simply managed to wait a while. The children were then tracked over time and there seemed to be a correlation between those who could defer pleasure and being successful in a number of areas.
The presentation makes it impossible to really get a handle on the details of the original studies and rubrics for “success” are always a bit dicey. I don’t think that if your kid couldn’t hold out for that second marshmallow that he or she is doomed to an unsuccessful life.1 However, I started thinking about my own predilection for choosing quick and easy pleasure over what might seem a harder, but possibly more rewarding, course. I also began to tally up some of the marshmallows in my life. Taking an hour every night to watch Scrubs is one, especially when I have so few hours outside of my day job to work on my writing and other projects. Choosing to skip physical exercise is another. Spending time reading RSS feeds or on Facebook instead of writing is another, as is eating too much ice cream in one sitting, or going back for seconds when I don’t really need more food. Then I think about all my credit card debt and realize just how many marshmallows I’ve eaten over the past few years. Not only do I not get a marshmallow at the end of the experiment, I now owe a whole lot of marshmallows.2
We are surrounded by marshmallows. We swim in a sea of marshmallows created by a materialist and rapacious capitalism that seeks to sell more and cheaper marshmallows for our consumption and damn the consequences. We are not faced with only one marshmallow for fifteen minutes, but dozens, possibly hundreds, of marshmallows each and every day. Some are dressed up to look like necessities. Some are so subtle that we don’t even notice that we are consuming them. Some appeal to our weaknesses and promise that we will be happier, stronger, better, more liked if we only bite into their gooey sweetness.
To make matters more complex, sometimes we only want one marshmallow. Constant deferral and asceticism in the name of future goals is not necessarily the answer either. However, de Posada’s talk has me reconsidering a number of the choices I make on a daily basis. From tv to procrastination, I have begun to question what I most want to accomplish and gain in my life. Every decision I make about my time and my money and my energy will either help me achieve my goals or they won’t. Knowing the difference is not necessarily easy, but if each of these choices represents a marshmallow, then I can make a more conscious choice. The trick, if choosing to eat the marshmallow and forgo getting the additional marshmallow, is to truly be in the moment and enjoy the hell out of that treat instead of wolfing it down in a second and not savoring it with all your attention. The other trick is figuring out which of the marshmallows in our lives are those that can wait, that can be deferred, and thus become a richer, more rewarding experience.
I have no answers and incorporating this lesson into my life will neither be simple nor easy. But I guess that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?