What If The Kids Who Failed The Marshmallow Test Were Smarter Than We Think?

Image for post
Image for post

I have to admit that I have some serious doubts about the marshmallow test.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, the marshmallow test is an experiment first run in 1972 in which a young child is left in a room with a single marshmallow, and informed that they’ll be given a second marshmallow if they can resist the urge to eat the first for 15 minutes.

Not only is it great fun to watch the kids squirm as they sniff, nibble and otherwise fixate on the marshmallows, the children who were able to wait the 15 minutes tended to achieve better outcomes across a range of metrics in later life. Lower incidence of obesity, a decreased risk of drug addiction and higher SAT scores, to name a few.

But while all of that is great, I can’t help wondering how the kids who waited felt when they received their second marshmallow. I mean seriously, it’s a marshmallow. It’s not like we’re talking about an ice cream or a chocolate bar. Was that second tiny lump of aerated sugar really worth the 15 minutes of anguish they endured?

That was 15 minutes that they could have spent playing outside (it was the 70s remember, so playing outside wasn’t yet considered child abuse), or watching TV, or doing anything other than sitting alone in a room being tormented by a marshmallow. Do you remember how long 15 minutes felt when you were a kid?

Reading about this experiment got me thinking about the tension between the things we want and the things we go through to get them. If the cost is too high we give up, if it’s too low we don’t feel any sense of achievement, so how do we figure out where to place the line? How do we deal with the fact that it’s often necessary to go through something we don’t want to get to something we do want?

Thinking about this made me realise that most of us have this problem backwards. The goal is almost entirely unimportant, yet we focus almost all of our attention on it. The process is absolutely central to our success or failure and yet we mostly ignore it.

Processes vs goals.

Let’s imagine that you decide to lose a certain amount of weight. After many months of gruelling exercise and strict, joyless dieting you succeed. What do you do next? Do you immediately set a new goal? Do you monitor your weight obsessively for the rest of your life to ensure that you stay within +-1% of your target? Do you just let everything slide until some point in the future and then do it all again?

If you start a meditation practice, does it only have value if you achieve enlightenment or become a “better person”, whatever that means? Does there need to be some result from meditating?

If this is your approach to meditation, or weight loss or anything else, I strongly suggest that you don’t even try. Not only are you highly likely to fail, but you’ll also be miserable while you fail. Why? Because your attention is so focused on the goal, that you’ve set yourself a process which is either impossible or never-ending. The best case is that house spend the rest of your life chasing goals, and the worst is that you give up because The process, the bit you spend the majority of your time doing, is unsustainable.

Rather than this, why not focus on the process? Why not meditate simply because enough find pleasure in taking a 20-minute break from your ordinary life? Why not take up a hobby you enjoy, dancing or hiking say, something which you could imagine doing for years instead of suffering through until you hit an arbitrary (and illusory) finish line?

The moment of joy we feel when achieving our goals is just that; a moment. Whether it’s crossing the finish line after running a marathon, getting your book published, gaining a qualification, hitting these checkpoints is great, but the satisfaction is so fleeting that if we don’t enjoy the process, then we’ve likely endured days, months, even years of misery, for a few moments of happiness. That’s a bad investment.

Look, I value goals as much as the next guy, I’m just saying that we should consider carefully what we’re giving up to get them. Give me a game, a ball, even a colouring book, and I can at least make good use of the time. But if I can’t enjoy the wait, I’m not convinced a marshmallow is worth those 15 minutes.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store