The Stanford marshmallow experiment was a series of studies on delayed gratification in the late 1960s and early 1970s led by psychologist Walter Mischel, then a professor at Stanford University. In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately or two small rewards if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned. (The reward was sometimes a marshmallow, but often a cookie or a pretzel.) In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index (BMI), and other life measures.
The interpretation is that in life, the only two choices are instant gratification (bad) or delayed gratification (good), and until recently, my experiences lined up with this interpretation. Many of the good life choices I have made involved tradeoffs for delayed gratification, and likewise, the opposite is true. However, what I’ve learned from developing my lifestyle over the last couple of years is that delayed vs. instant gratification is a false choice!
The mindset that I have begun to embrace is one of neither instant nor delayed gratification; rather it is a choice for continuous gratification. In a personal finance sense:
- Instant gratification would be the choice to spend every penny earned and then some through debt- managing finances by affording the payments.
- Delayed gratification would be the choice to work hard until age 65 or 70, then being able to support a “continuous vacation” retirement of worldwide jet-setting, cruising, golf, a house in The Villages: extreme and frequent consumption. Such retirees are not incapable of enjoying their hard earned retirement, but they have traded the best years of their life for a long vacation in the increasingly arthritic, childless and variously dysfunctional (use your imagination) years.
- People who are able to be financially independent in their 20s or 30s or even 40s without a significant windfall are choosing continuous gratification. They have found a way to be happy on a fraction of their preretirement income, needing investment income to support 20%-30% of preretirement income rather than 80%-130% of income as before. They wake up each day and choose rewarding activities, personally and possibly even financially, but on their terms. In short, they are not tied to full time employment for survival, so have infinite opportunities to grow and evolve.
You can always get more money or a new job, but the only truly limited resource in life is time.
An important part of continuous gratification is finding ways to spend the massive amount of free time that financial independence could create. This is scary because we are wired to not have to be self-sufficient when it comes to time: a lifetime of institutionalization from preschool to college to full time jobs means that almost always, someone is dictating how the most productive 40 hours of the week will be spent. I’ve written about the importance of serotonin and dopamine before, which are the chemicals that make humans feel good about themselves and what they are doing. Consider this list:
- Going for a long run
- Owning and driving a fast & cool sports car
- Taking a vacation to the south of France
- Playing chess with my son and daughter
- Cooking and eating dinner as a family
- Collecting rare books and fancy pens
- Skiing in Colorado
I have greatly enjoyed each activity on this list at different times, but they are very different. All of them energize and entertain my immensely, but some of them are absurdly expensive and some of them are completely free. Cost per unit of serotonin is a very important metric, since it decides how much money one needs to retire and how long one must be committed to involuntary full time work.
The problem with instant/delayed gratification people is that they put absolutely no emphasis on “value per unit of pleasure.” What’s worse, they believe there is a positive correlation between money spent and pleasure. VERY few people can tell the difference between a $25 bottle of Bourbon and a $100 bottle in a blind taste test… or between a $25 bottle of wine and a $2500 one, for that matter. In fact, aspirational advertising has taught us that there is positive correlation between money spent and pleasure derived from stuff and experiences.
I acknowledge that there are differences that experts can discern, and the best wines are probably unambiguously “better” than midrange ones. However, what separates continuous gratification people from instant/delayed folks is that we don’t want to know the difference. Rather than spending all my money today on the finest wine, or working hard for 30 years to be able to afford the finest wine, I want to responsibly enjoy Botabox wine today and indefinitely into the future, with no aspirations of trading up. Satisfaction with what you’ve got can be achieved at any level of income or savings, yet is one of the most elusive goals to reach in today’s society. I refuse to take one marshmallow today or two tomorrow; I prefer a long string of healthy marshmallowless days with no insulin spikes and no cavities!
This article is a brief foray into the lifestyle I’ve been developing for myself over the last year or so. It incorporates elements of minimalism, Stoicism, continuous gratification, autotelism, personal fitness, diet, financial independence and much much more. There are a lot of great thinkers who have created this body of study in the last decade or so; I feel honored to have learned from them and eventually contribute to myself over time. I would very much appreciate any readers that want to come along for my personal journey, documented at www.solexist.com.