Skip to main content
Habits and StrategiesHappiness

An Essential Skill So Easy a Child Can Do It

By January 24, 2024No Comments


Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics called it akrasia – a weakness of will, acting in a way contrary to our consciously held moral values. It’s the quality that most distinguishes criminals from the rest of us; and the quality that most distinguishes less successful people from those who are more successful.

The ability to resist our short-term impulses and desires, and to focus instead on our long-term values and goals is the most important capacity for living well.

In the late 1960’s, Walter Mischel, a professor at Stanford University, conducted one of the most important experiments in psychology. It’s now called The Marshmallow Test, but marshmallows were only one of a variety of treats used to tempt young limbic systems to indulge in their immediate desires.

Children from age three on up were left alone in a room with treats – luscious marshmallows, yummy cookies… 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 twenty 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…

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 only 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 four 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, for example, 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 short-term temptations of 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. 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 hasn’t us.

Aristotle appreciated this over 2,300 years ago. Mischel’s marshmallow whisperers grappled with it as young as pre-school 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.

PS: My course, Mastering Emotions, Moods and Reactions can help you with this part of your life in much greater detail, with deep understanding and practical skills for mastering these systems and living well for $99, if you use this code: LB99. And now you can purchase the workbook from this course separately here.