Do we have it too easy?
I woke up this morning with a song stuck in my head. It took me less than a minute to log onto iTunes and purchase it, enjoying it while I made some instant coffee before I went to class. When I got to class, I realized that I had forgotten my textbook at home. With a few clicks of the mouse, I purchased the e-book from Amazon. For lunch and dinner, I visited a fast-food restaurant, and before bed, I watched a movie — instantly streaming it on Netflix, of course.
We live in a generation where we’ve become accustomed to our every wish and whim being instantaneously fulfilled. High-end electronics become ours with “no money down” and luxury cars are handed to us with “just a signature.” But what effect does this culture of instant gratification have on us in the long term? What happens when we’re used to getting what we want the easy way, but are told we must put in hard work and be extremely patient to acquire the truly important things in life?
Although the desire for instant gratification has become an epidemic in recent times, the impulse is nothing new. The Torah is replete with examples of instant gratification and the consequences it entails. Perhaps the most well-known example is the case in Genesis 25:29-34, of Jacob buying the rights of the firstborn, pertaining to inheritance and (at the time) service in the Holy Temple, from his older brother Esau. Esau trades his firstborn rights, the keys to his eternal reward and personal fulfillment in this world, for a bowl of lentils and a few coins. After he later finds out what those momentary pleasures have cost him, he “bursts out with a loud and bitter cry,” lamenting his long-term loss. The Torah is teaching us to emulate Jacob, who used his foresight to acquire the right of the firstborn and guarantee his legacy, and not to fall into the trap Esau fell into when he let short-term pleasure blind him from seeing the long-term loss he was causing for himself and his descendants.
While not promoting asceticism, Jewish law is also brimming with regulations that encourage a delay of pleasure in order to promote a more meaningful life experience. In practicing the laws of family purity, as one of the foundations of the Jewish family, a married couple refrains from engaging in any intimate activity for a set period of time every month in order to maintain the specialness of marital relations and family unity. In a modern generation, where all too often we hear about relationships and marriages “losing their spark” and falling apart after short periods of courtship, this 3,300-year-old law can be the key to a healthy and successful marriage.
This concept is not exclusive to fundamental halachot. Many everyday practices in Judaism illustrate the importance of self-control through a delaying of gratification. The well-known custom of waiting between consumption of meat and dairy, the mandatory washing of hands before eating bread, and the concept of saying a brachah (blessing) before indulging in any food are all examples of the mechanisms Judaism employs to remind its adherents about the importance of reflecting on all actions, even the most minute and seemingly insignificant daily ones.
But what is the point of delaying gratification? If I want something, why shouldn’t I have it right now? Even though some of us might think that that the rules of the Torah are outdated and not applicable to our modern lives, modern research can give us space for pause, especially in this area. A very well-known study that illustrates the importance of delaying gratification is the Stanford “marshmallow experiment,” a research trial conducted by Professor Walter Mischel at Stanford University in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Four-to-six-year-old children were each given two options: to receive a marshmallow and immediately eat it, or to wait 15 minutes and receive an additional marshmallow. Some children were able to wait the fifteen minutes, whilst others were not able to and soon had eaten their marshmallows. Researchers continued to monitor these toddlers into childhood and adolescence. They discovered that the children who were able to delay gratification grew up to be psychologically better adjusted, more motivated, dependable and academically successful, compared with their less-patient counterparts. The latest studies on the participants have found that these traits have stayed with the participants for life. This study shows that making the choice to delay gratification can train a person to have stronger willpower, which will ultimately allow him or her to fulfill long-term goals faster.
Delaying gratification can also bring numerous benefits to our day-to-day lives. Let’s say you are hungry right now (which you probably are). What are you going to choose to eat? Many will go the route of instant gratification and choose a snack that tastes really good, highly processed and filled with simple sugars and trans fats. This choice might help explain the obesity epidemic that has plagued the Western world in recent times. By delaying gratification and continually choosing the healthier option — the glass of water over the glass of soda — you will probably enjoy the long-term benefits of your wise decision by leading a healthier life, avoiding multiple diet-based illnesses and having more energy to live your life to its fullest. Similarly, many people do not like to go through slight discomforts, such as exercising or visiting the dentist, even though they know of the benefits these small discomforts ultimately have and the serious consequences that avoiding these discomforts can entail. We must train ourselves to accept small pains and discomforts in order to achieve the greater benefits that eventually come.
The amazing technological advances that the world has seen in the last two centuries have revolutionized every aspect of life and improved our lives beyond measure. This revolution has not been without its side effects, however. The easiness of tasks that used to be arduous not too long ago, such as doing laundry or long-distance travel, have become routine for us, and we have come to expect everything to be given to us with little or no effort. This mentality is to our detriment as it cheapens the life experience and can have adverse effects on all areas of life, including health and relationships. In order to live life to the fullest, we must sometimes choose to do things the hard way, because the easy way is not always the right way.