“I Want What I Want & I Want It Now”

By Megan Bleam - 12/01/2022


How Instant Gratification Influences the Brain & Deteriorates Recovery

The saying, “good things come to those who wait” has become harder to employ.

Patience was long considered a virtue, but it seems more like an anachronism today.

In today’s world we have access to fast everything—information, food, technology, entertainment, comfort, prescriptions, sex, etc.

Don’t know the spelling of a word? Use Siri or Google it. Feeling hungry but are too tired to cook dinner? Postmates it. Feeling lonely? Launch Tinder and start swiping right. Forgot it is your friend’s birthday tomorrow? Get a gift delivered that day with Amazon.

Instant gratification refers to the experience of satisfaction or receipt of reward as soon as a response is made. Simply stated, instant gratification is the act of receiving a reward and/or pleasure without having to wait.

At the heart of instant gratification is one of the most basic drives inherent in humans—the tendency to see pleasure and avoid pain. Having our desires quickly met is not necessarily a bad thing.

So what’s so bad about instant gratification?

For starters, having an over-reliance on certain instant gratification-fueled impulsive behaviors can create changes in our brains. The repeated exposure to instant gratification disrupts the balance of benefits versus risks in delay of receiving an available reward.

A study at Harvard observed two groups of participants consuming chocolate. Group A indulged in the chocolate while Group B had no access to the chocolate. After the study, both groups were given chocolate and Group B reported higher happiness, savored the taste more, and was in a better mood afterwards. This study shows what people think will make them happy isn’t always what will and that you can have too much of a good thing.

If we experience more pleasure and happiness through delayed gratification, why is it so difficult to choose delayed over instant?

Our brains are constantly changing in response to our actions and behaviors. For instance, if the desire is to lose weight we may impulsively purchase the newest trending diet pill that advertises “Lose 20 pounds in 2 weeks!” rather than going for a walk every morning. Each time this compulsion for instant gratification is acted on, our brain pathways for those actions are reinforced and strengthened, making it easier to fall into the same patterns the next time around and harder to break the cycle.

The start of the cycle may look like having a drink one night after a long day at work to then finding any minor inconvenience the next day in order to justify drinking again the next night.

Getting caught up in the instant gratification cycle can make you susceptible to addictions, jealousy, anger, and impulsive behavior. It also often leads to increased stress, anxiety, and feeling overwhelmed.

As it pertains to instant gratification harming our recovery, research has found that individuals with mental health issues are less likely to wait for things they find pleasurable. For example, if symptoms of depression are present, there is an impact on how the brain processes things – particularly our prefrontal cortex which deals with decision making, problem solving, and memory.

As the struggling person goes straight to self-soothing behaviors to give themselves a quick boost, they may neglect their basic needs as a result, harming their recovery.

Looking at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we see how vital meeting our physiological needs (like food, sleep, and shelter) is. These needs sit at the bottom of the pyramid, and if the physiological isn’t addressed first, safety, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization fall by the wayside.

In addition, researchers have found that the ability to delay gratification is not just an important part of goal achievement, it might also have a major impact on long-term life success and overall well-being.

So, next time you notice yourself falling into the compulsion cycle for instant gratification, pause and assess your needs rather than act. Rather than rushing to a psychiatrist to get a prescription for ADHD medication, ask yourself: “Am I getting enough sleep?” Instead of going straight to the fridge to pop open wine after work, ask yourself: “Would going for a walk or taking some deep breaths help me destress?”


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