When I was four years old, fire devoured my little body. I spent days. . . weeks. . . months alone in the hospital. My blackened skin was scrubbed off and my open wounds were patched over with new skin. The lower half of my face and neck were reconstructed and sewn back together, slowly, painstakingly, one excruciatingly painful operation at a time.
I was four and I was alone. Doctors and nurses would tell me that I had to have another operation, or another horrific dressing change. I had to endure these procedures, so that I could get better and go home. There would be searing pain and lonely days, but eventually, I would go home. So, I submitted to the dressing changes. And I did my painful exercises. And I had my scary operations. I did what I was told, by people whom I trusted, and eventually I did go home.
Perhaps because of these formative experiences, I am a champ at delayed gratification. If you tell me that a certain action is required for a positive outcome, and if I believe you, I can delay gratification for a long time. Thus, I saved the $2,000 earned at my first summer job in a retirement account, and have accrued compound interest ever since. And yes, I meditate every morning, even though I just want to drink my coffee. And yes, I lift weights, even though I dislike exercise. I do these activities because I trust there are good reasons to delay what I want to do RIGHT NOW (spend the money, drink coffee, watch TV) so that I can have the things I want in the future (financial stability, peace of mind, good health.)
We are all learning a lesson in the value of delaying gratification in this year of COVID 19. The capacity to delay gratification, to put off doing what we want RIGHT NOW, so that we can have something much better later… this ability could save all our lives, just like it saved mine, decades ago.
Some of us follow the COVID 19 recommendations exactly. We cancel our plans and stay home. We avoid restaurants, perhaps allowing a take-out meal, eaten mournfully in our kitchens. We stay away from elderly relatives. We shout pleasantly at our neighbors from a safe distance. We do all these things, understanding that we must delay what we want RIGHT NOW (adventure, socialization, a decent meal) for more important gains later (keeping everyone alive).
Some of us can postpone our joy and some of us… can’t. Why not? Partly it is because we receive mixed messages in the media, and some of us do not understand that we need to be careful. Perhaps some of us are not mature enough to understand the true risks involved. Teenagers are never good at assessing risk (It is amazing anyone even survives adolescence). Some people do not trust the news and do not trust in the eventuality of promised positive outcomes. And some people have never been good at delayed gratification.
There was a classic psychology experiment done in the 1960s, commonly referred to as the “marshmallow study.” Preschoolers were left alone in a room with a marshmallow right in front of them. The researcher told them that they could eat the marshmallow right away, if they wanted to. However, if they could just wait ten more minutes, they would be able to eat two marshmallows. https://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-marshmallow-test-kids-20180626-story.html Thus, it was clearly in the child’s best interest to sit and wait ten minutes before eating that marshmallow. If they could wait, they would earn double the prize.
About one third of the children were overcome by the sight of the treat and gobbled the marshmallow as soon as the researcher left. Another third succumbed at some point during the ten minutes, unable to wait any longer. But one third of the kids could wait. They distracted themselves by closing their eyes or singing songs. One memorable boy grabbed a quick nap.
The researchers tracked these kids longitudinally. The kids who waited were better students, got higher SAT scores, and stayed in better physical and emotional health.
These days, it is like we are all in a giant marshmallow test. We are being asked to stay home, avoid unnecessary travel, wear masks and keep our distance from each other. We are asked to do these things in the hopes of getting our two marshmallows: getting back to normal and saving lives.
Some of us diligently follow these rules. Maybe we take a little risk here or there; dining out on our anniversary or visiting our mothers. But generally, we stay put, trusting in science and delaying our gratification.
Some of us… don’t. Recently, 700 people crammed inside a New Jersey rental house, and partied down. Bars are crowded, with each drink likely leading to diminished caution, as alcohol lowers inhibitions. Stories abound of people taking breathtaking chances. And sure, many of these people will walk away just fine. Some of them won’t. And neither will their families.
In the original marshmallow test, one kid’s actions did not affect everyone else. If one little girl grabbed her marshmallow with two fists, it didn’t mean that every other child was deprived. Each child had free will, able to choose one immediate treat or a longer wait for two. But, in our current national marshmallow test, one person’s failure to delay gratification can possibly endanger many others.
What can we do?
First, take heart. There are many people out there, trying to mitigate risk. Thousands and thousands of people wear masks, avoid crowds, stay home and are not eating their marshmallows. You are not alone. Rule-followers may not be making the news, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t in the majority. Lots of people are being very careful and you are in good company.
Second, trust the long-term promise. There are armies of scientists, working 24/7, all around the world. They are developing vaccines and carefully testing them. These scientists are not exercising blind faith. They study, they hypothesize, they replicate, compare to control groups, and replicate again. Scientists have advanced the public health interest for hundreds of years. They discovered germs and the importance of hand washing. They discovered penicillin and eradicated Smallpox. Scientists are once again working diligently to solve the COVID 19 crisis. They are making progress. Trust them.
Third, set a good example. The more of us who model responsible behavior, the better. People mimic each other, just like in the saying “monkey see, monkey do.” If many people wear masks, more people will wear masks. (Conversely, if many people attend indoor parties, more people will attend indoor parties.) Set an example for others, particularly for young people, but also for everyone. Be a trend setter!
Fourth, Keep this difficult time in perspective. Humans have lived through a lot worse than this. People have endured wars, starvation, the Great Depression and slavery. Having to stay home and wearing a mask at the grocery store is just not in the same league. I grant you, this is a stressful, upsetting and disappointing time. But in the grand scheme of humanity, this year is not that hard (as long as you aren’t sick). You know what’s hard? Dying from COVID. You know what’s harder? Watching someone you love die from COVID, fearing that you gave it to them.
We can all make it through this. A bit of sacrifice now will be worth it in the long run. Hold on for the two marshmallows.