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Children from age 3 on up were left alone in a room with treats – luscious marshmallows, yummy cookies, etc. The children got to decide which treats they’d be tantalized by. They were given two options: ring a bell to call the experimenter back in the room, at which point they could eat one of the indulgences; or wait until the experimenter came back some 20 minutes later, and get to eat two of the treats.

This was a test of the ability to delay gratification. Following up in the decades since, Mischel and his colleagues have found that those children who were able to wait longer also were more successful in many crucial ways as time went on.

As teenagers, they scored an average of 210 points higher on their SAT scores. As adults, they were better able to pursue and reach long-term goals, including reaching higher educational levels; they were less likely to use drugs, had a significantly lower body mass index, were better able to deal well with challenges in work and maintain close relationships.

Later, when brain imagery technology was used to study these now grown children, those who had maintained a high level of self-control over the course of their lives showed more activity in their prefrontal cortex – the area that integrates the higher functions of motivation and control. Those who were less able to delay showed more activity in the more primitive ventral striatum – which involves desire, pleasure and addiction.

The children who were able to resist the siren song of immediate treats went on to lead more disciplined and successful lives than those who were not. This could lead us to think there’s something inborn, a fixed trait of self-control present from early childhood that would allow some people to flourish and succeed, while others were doomed to a life of self-indulgence and failure.

That’s the message a lot of people have taken from a superficial look at these experiments, but they’ve missed the point entirely…

A Child Could Do It

The most important finding from Mischel’s experiments, and indeed from a whole wealth of studies now on self-regulation and willpower, is that we are not at the mercy of some fixed trait of temperance – there are things that any of us can do to strengthen our capacity for self-control.

In fact, it’s so easy, a child could do it… and indeed they did.

The most powerful thing the children who could hold out in the face of temptation did was to see the treat as a picture, rather than focusing on the sensory qualities of the real treat. They were told they could imagine a picture frame around the treat, and that had a dramatic effect: while focusing on the qualities of texture, smell and flavor of the treat itself, children would wait an average of about a minute before ringing the bell. When they imagined it as a picture, not as a real treat, those very same children could wait for 18 minutes.

Purposeful imagination is that powerful of a tool. This means that our capacity for self-control is something that we can learn and grow. If a 4-year-old child can do it, so can we.

How do we do it? The same way Mischel’s young Jedis did. There are three steps:

  1. Keep the long-term goal that we are holding out for in mind.
  2. Find ways to inhibit the short-term impulses.
  3. Continue to direct our attention away from the temptations, and toward doing the things that will earn us our long term goals.

At the base camp of Mount Everest many years ago, I had a conversation with a climber who was preparing for the ascent. I asked him, “What do you think about, what do you focus on, so you stay sharp when fatigue is an issue, and each step could mean life or death?” He said, “Two things: Watch your step, and always remember what you have to come home to.”

The first of these keeps us focused on the specific, concrete steps to reach our goal; the second keeps us mindful of the long-term, overriding purpose. Both, together, are central to staying on track, and persevering through temptation, impulses and fatigue.

If our goal is to change our diet toward more healthy eating, that’s going to involve holding the goal of ourselves as leaner, fitter and healthier over time – as well as all the benefits that come with better health.

It’s also going to involve dealing with the temptations of short-term treats. We can do that in many ways: not having those treats around (so we won’t be looking at them, like the struggling children gazing longingly at the tasty marshmallows in front of them), distracting ourselves when we’re tempted or imagining the treat in a different way.

We can think of it as a picture, distancing ourselves from the immediate sensations. Or we can imagine it in a way that makes it unattractive – thinking of fatty or sugary foods as poison, for example, or seeing it in our mind’s eye as something gross.

This same principle applies for anything we want to achieve. Avoiding short-term temptations and restraining our knee-jerk emotional reactions makes it possible for us to stay focused on our long-term goals. Defining and deeply valuing those long-term goals over our short-term indulgences strengthens our willpower and allows us to persevere in the face of adversity and temptation.

Of course there are some things worth enjoying in the moment, even indulging in. The crucial point is that we can be conscious and mindful of it; that we have the choice if we wish… so that we have that particular indulgence, but the indulgence doesn’t have us.

Aristotle appreciated this over 2,500 years ago. Mischel’s marshmallow whisperers grappled with it as young as preschool age, but we can strengthen it at any age. The more we can appreciate and apply these solid principles today, the happier and more successful we can be.


P.S. My new Master’s Course in Happiness is designed to help you learn the skills and habits that will help you build a flourishing life now. For a limited time, I’m offering this to TTP Members at a special discounted rate of $39 a month.

Joel F. Wade, Ph.D. is the author of Mastering Happiness. He is a marriage and family therapist and life coach who works with people around the world via phone and Skype. You can get a FREE Learning Optimism E-Course if you sign up at his website,