Curbing our impulses for instant gratification takes effort, but if even the Cookie Monster can learn self-restraint, so can we.
As culture and society evolve, television shows meet their inevitable end. While some last for a few seasons, and very few for a decade, Sesame Street has thrived for over forty years in providing us with entertainment and education. One character adored for amusing countless children and his love for confection is the infamous Cookie Monster. His very persona is defined by the haphazard indulgence of every chocolate morsel, followed by the grumbling sound of satisfaction. Alas, it was surprising to recently learn that our beloved Cookie Monster sought rehabilitation to promote healthier habits for children. Gluttony, rampant consumerism, and instant gratification, it seems, are just not adorable personality traits for most of us—unless you have blue fur and googly eyes.
The psychology of instant gratification was famously demonstrated in Walter Michel’s “Stanford marshmallow experiment” (1), in which he offered pre-school children the option to eat one marshmallow or wait 15 minutes for two marshmallows. While some jumped at the chance for one treat, and others squirmed around in an effort to restrain themselves, only a few could hold out for the additional marshmallow. Overall, instant gratification won out. Of course, this study was conducted on young children, who are most easily susceptible to instant gratification, but before we congratulate ourselves on how we could easily restrain ourselves from something as simple as (halal) marshmallows, the concept remains very relevant. We live in an era that thrives on instantaneous fulfillment of our most complex desires and temptations, one that reinforces the notion of carpe diem or seizing the moment. The idea of waiting has become overrated with the development of technology, one-click payments, and purchases made on future credit — all in exchange for present satisfaction. While there are certainly some benefits, constant pursuit of gratification does not prove useful, especially in a self-serving culture that seemingly limits opportunities to exhibit patience and self-control.
Psychological research has linked delayed gratification with improved health, social relationships, decision-making and overall happiness (2). We can certainly expect a positive effect on spirituality as well. According to cognitive and behavioral economics, the idea of sacrifice is instinctual, especially when foregoing a smaller immediate reward leads to one greater in the future (2). It begs the question, if withholding the urge for temporary gratification is a natural phenomenon with such beneficial effects, why don’t we do it more often?
Allah proclaims in The Noble Quran, “Man is a creature of haste” (3) and “And man prays for evil as he ought to pray for good, and man is ever hasty.” (4)
Research confirms that our minds act hastily at times when making a decision between two choices—fixating heavily on the waiting period for the payoff of each choice. This lends to rationalizing and re-valuing the smaller immediate reward as being worth more than the greater future reward (5). The utter dislike of waiting is enough for us to reconsider everything.
This mirrors the daily battle we engage in with our nafs (نَفْس), the indulgently low and egotistic element of the inner self. We are in an evolving tug-of-war between the immediate satisfaction of our desires and the patient seeking of Allah’s pleasure and ultimate reward of paradise.
Beautified for people is the love of that which they desire – of women and sons, heaping sums of gold and silver, fine branded horses, cattle and land. That is the enjoyment of worldly life, but Allah has with Him the best return. Say: Shall I inform you glad tidings of something better than that? For those who fear Allah will be gardens in the presence of their Lord beneath which rivers flow, wherein they abide forever, and pure spouses and approval from Allah. And Allah is Seeing (Aware) of His servants. (6)
Since the creation of Prophet Adam (peace be upon him) each of us has been tried by the temptations of things that we find immediately satisfy us. Our fast track minds that move toward instant satisfaction easily distract us from the truly greater reward. Many times, we act on our impulse faster than we can process the spiritual ramification it has on our soul. Granted, it is difficult when these instant rewards are tangible through our senses and immediately available. The greater reward, on the other hand, is something we cannot attain yet. It requires faith and persistence in transcending worldly desires. We focus on what we know, such as this world, rather than the greater vast unknown. We favor that which is physically attainable because our senses confirm it to be true, while foregoing that which has not yet been confirmed, despite having been promised by our Creator.
Impulsivity is not only related to the pain of waiting for something greater. A more unsettling reason we aren’t always pressed to withhold immediate gratification is due to the perceived uncertainty of ever receiving the greater reward in the future. When uncertainty looms, it consequently increases the value of the immediate reward in contrast to the latter (7). This presents a real discourse when the smaller reward is not only enticing and immediately available but especially when one believes they won’t ever obtain the greater reward anyway.
Ultimately, it therefore boils down to the yaqeen (certainty) we have in our faith. We must be constantly reminded about the certainty of Allah’s greater reward. Lack of belief in Him invariably provides a crux for weakened faith and sinful actions harmful to the heart. It creates a vicious cycle by which one continues to live indulgently and maintains loss of hope in the forgiveness of Allah (subhanahu wa ta'ala). While we see the fruits of labor from worldly things, the challenge is in remembering that the spiritual benefits not always recognized in this world will bring us the greatest reward in the next. When we think about the future, most times we find it unclear or vague and as a result less appealing. The future becomes more engaging when we focus on the details. Therefore we must recite the Qur’an regularly to spiritually and psychologically connect with the detailed account of Allah’s promises and rewards for those who remain steadfast.
Continuous gratification only reinforces and perpetuates the same results. We must break from the status quo with the reminder that Allah is testing us through individual hardships – in situations that offer us immediate satisfaction but that require our patience and self-control. The environment around us determines a lot of what makes us impulsive – and provides a vehicle for change. How do we restrain our nafs to delay gratification?
1. Identify the triggers and ride them out
Observe situations in which we struggle to exhibit restraint. Increased awareness of these triggers impacts the way we think and act towards self-control, because it allows us to envision a higher response before we face that stimulus, rather than falling victim to the lower gratification impulse when we face it unprepared. Expecting to come across those cookies goes a long way in helping us respond on a higher level to take control, rather than be controlled. Ride it out and remember urges pass over time, acknowledging our weakness in the midst of temptation without giving into it either.
2. Counter impulsivity by looking forward to the future
Try to de-emphasize the present state and visualize the future (2), creating a detailed account of what is to come by waiting, such as regularly reviewing the accounts of Allah’s rewards and increasing faith to be at the forefront of life. This will help to re-value the future over the present and overcome impulsive actions. Instead of living for carpe diem, seize the moment in the remembrance of God and His rewards. Aim to live by the notion that good things come to those who wait. Think of the future often and imagine its rewards.
3. Practice willpower
Work to gradually tolerate longer periods of delay without something you enjoy. Even though society values instant satisfaction, we have the willpower and opportunity to rewire the way we think to improve self-control. Those who actively work to delay gratification will find it easier to reinforce self-control going forward. We can practice perseverance by fasting while restraining from erratic decisions based on fleeting emotions. We can redirect our energies into something positive and engage in activities that are purposeful, enjoyable, and productive.
Each harmful temptation is an opportunity to gain the pleasure of Allah and avoid His punishment. Patience helps to beget patience and brightens the path in the face of our struggles. The beloved Prophet Muhammed ﷺ spoke beautifully about the merits of patience when he said:
“Prayer is a light, charity is proof and patience is illumination.” (8)
“And whoever remains patient, Allah will make him patient. No one can be given a blessing better and greater than patience”. (9)
4. Supplicate to Allah
The most important strategy towards curbing gratification and achieving self-control is to genuinely supplicate to Allah for His help.
“Seek help through patience and prayer - it is indeed difficult except for those who are humbly submissive, who are certain in meeting their Lord and that it is to Him they will return.” (10)
“O you who have believed, seek help through patience and prayer. Indeed, Allah is with the patient.” (11)
Change is an arduous process, but not without an immense sense of inner peace and self-growth. Remember that while we seek desires everyday, the One who created us knows truly what we want and what is in our best interest. There will be immediate serenity in our hearts when we recognize that everything that we truly need will be provided by none other than the Best of Providers Himself.
While there are many benefits with practicing delayed gratification, one thing remains unconditionally true. Things are inevitably better when we wait, and the taste is even sweeter when we get it after remaining steadfast. These days the newly reformed Cookie Monster now happily sings, “Me want it…but me wait!”, a sentiment we must share as well, for the benefit of our life and soul.
And Allah Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala (May He be Glorified and Exalted) knows best.
- Mischel, W. The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control (2014). New York: Little Brown & Co.
- Cheng, Y., Shein, P., & Chiou, W. (2011). Escaping the impulse to immediate gratification: The prospect concept promotes a future-oriented mindset, promoting an inclination towards delayed gratification. British Journal of Psychology, 1-13.
- Surah Al-Anbiya (21), Verse 37
- Surah Al-Isra (17), Verse 11
- Frederick, S., Loewenstein, G., & Odonoghue, T. (2002). Time discounting and time preferences: A critical review. Journal of Economic Literature, 40, 351-401.
- Surah Al-Imran (3), Verse 14-15
- Benzion, U., Rapoport, A., & Yagil, J. (1989). Discount rates inferred from decisions: An experimental study. Management Science, 35, 270-284.
- Narrated Abu Malik Al-Ashari. Related in Muslim
- Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri. Related in Bukhari
- Surah Al-Baqarah (2), Verse 45-46
- Surah Al-Baqarah (2), Verse 153
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