Actionable Tips To Abandon Instant Gratification

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated March 2, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Support is available 24/7. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Humans are hard-wired to prefer instant gratification to delayed gratification from an evolutionary perspective, and many elements of today’s consumerist society reinforce these behaviors. However, indulging in this desire too frequently or in certain ways can cause problems for people. Over time, repeated gravitation toward instant outcomes can lead to over-prioritizing short-term validation in favor of long-term success. If you’re looking to manage or temper your tendency to pursue instant gratification, the tips we’ll explore here may help.

Finding yourself over indulging?

A cultural history of instant gratification

The concept of instant gratification is embedded deep within the culture of the United States. We are used to having what we want, when we want it—but this wasn’t always the case. Let’s briefly explore how this change that prizes immediate satisfaction happened over the past few generations. 

The rise of consumerism

The rise of consumerism can be traced back to the post-World War II United States. After the war ended, there was a wealth of goods available for consumption at prices that were more affordable than ever before. This factor, combined with an increase in commercial marketing, helped create a consumerist culture that promoted the idea that products were associated with happiness and status. As a result, people increasingly began to seek material goods to fulfill their desires for pleasure and safety. By consuming these goods, one could achieve little instant gratification in fulfilling a desire, the ability to purchase a variety of items without having to wait.

The rise of technology

As technology advanced, so did our hunger for instant gratification. With the invention of the internet came a whole new realm of possibilities catering to the need for immediate gratification among internet users. E-commerce in particular enabled people to purchase and receive whatever they wanted quickly in web pages, without ever leaving their homes. Eventually, streaming services began to offer the same option for on-demand entertainment as a quick fix for boredom. The rise of social media platforms further supported this trend, enabling people to get a sense of validation from their peers in seconds. Posting a photo on social media can results in instant gratification in the form of “likes” and comments. These advances in technology furthered bypassed the need to delay gratification.

Instant gratification in US culture today

Today, the speed of obtaining rewards—from food and products to entertainment and validation—seems to be a top cultural priority. While this ever-increasing trend has some benefits, it has also normalized an over-reliance on instant gratification in contrast to delayed gratification, which can be problematic. For example, younger generations who have grown up completely immersed in this culture report having greater trouble controlling their “emotional spending”—typically consisting of online shopping to treat themselves when happy or comfort themselves when sad—which can lead to financial difficulties and debt in the long term. 

This element of the culture that undermines delaying gratification could make it challenging to avoid immediate temptations. It may also be at least partially to blame for increased rates of addiction to behaviors or substances, particularly among young people. While planning for the distant future may not be a priority for many people, including young people, buying something one cannot afford, such as a new car, can complicate one's life. The prevalence of instant gratification can make wise decision-making more difficult.

The science behind instant gratification

When we work hard and wait patiently for some kind of payoff, our brains are engaged in an intricate reward-system process. However, studies have shown that our brains are also hardwired for short-term pleasure. This means that there are various mechanisms and systems in place in our brains and bodies that make us more inclined to choose instant gratification, including the following.

According to the pleasure principle in psychology, humans are innately prone to seek immediate pleasure and avoid displeasure, a form of tension that results from not having our immediate desires met. As the pleasure principle explains, we are wired to want pleasure and avoid pain, as pain may cause emotional distress. However, we have the ability to experience pleasure in both short-term and long-term goals. Some studies have examined the relationship between short-term memory, higher intelligence, and the ability to delay gratification. They suggest a correlation between our cognitive capacity to self-control and intelligence when evaluating instant and delayed gratification. It links higher intelligence with the ability to delay gratification to achieve future outcomes. Although delaying gratification for a long time is often challenging, it may result in larger rewards. This connection is sought to be useful to understand the factors involved when people partake in behaviors that may bring negative effects, such as substance abuse and the inability to save money. 

The dopamine system

When faced with a choice between an immediate reward (e.g., a candy bar) or a delayed reward (e.g., money saved for later), most people are likely to choose the former because it feels good immediately. This tendency towards short-term rewards stems from the brain’s dopamine system, which is largely responsible for feelings of pleasure and satisfaction.  

The limbic system

The limbic system also plays a significant role in controlling emotions and behaviors related to seeking pleasure. If a reward doesn’t reach us immediately or takes longer than we think it should, our limbic system kicks into gear and compels us toward more immediate rewards instead. The evolutionary reason for this is likely based on survival mechanisms. In the early days of humanity, food and other resources had to be taken advantage of when they were available to ensure survival.

Hedonism theory

When looking to explain this tendency, some also turn to hedonism theory. It proposes that humans have an innate desire for pleasure—hedonism—which drives us to seek out activities or experiences that provide immediate gratification over those that involve a delay of gratification, even if they have potential negative consequences.

For example, let's say you want a new phone but don't have enough money saved up yet. You could go ahead and buy it anyway using a credit card, even though you know this will mean paying high interest rates later. Although you may be aware of the potential negative repercussions of buying a new phone now, your innate hedonistic nature might still win out because it may compel you to seek an immediate reward. Without a view towards future long-term gain, it may be challenging to avoid delaying immediate satisfaction.

Benefits of resisting the desire for instant gratification

Studies suggest that people who practice delayed gratification are more likely to lead healthier lives overall. Researchers report that the benefits of this practice may include getting better, more restful sleep at night, exercising more regularly, making healthier eating choices, and experiencing lower levels of stress and anxiety. If you’re looking to build up your tolerance for resisting instant gratification, know that it’s possible to do so with practice and the right strategies. If you can find the time to work on your tendency toward instant gratification, you may experience many advantages in life.

Tips for resisting the desire for instant gratification

Since we’re wired for instant gratification, resisting it in every instance is not necessarily practical. Plus, indulging in this desire in small ways from time to time may represent a form of self-care, comfort, and even motivation to work toward our goals. However, as outlined previously, over-indulging in this tendency can lead to negative consequences. Success and happiness sometimes require long-term planning and avoiding indulging in the moment, so learning to manage this tendency may benefit you over time. To do so, you might try some of the following tips.

Recognize your urges

Sometimes, we can get stuck in a cycle of chasing instant gratification partly because we aren’t being mindful of the fact that we’re doing so. Especially in our modern world, it’s easy to feel an urge and fulfill it instantly. To learn to manage this tendency, it may help you to learn how to recognize when an urge arises. Cultivating a mindfulness practice is one way to do this, since many are centered on developing a nonjudgmental awareness of your thoughts as they arise. 

Learning to pause and recognize the urge to check your phone, have a snack, or turn on a show right away can help you become more aware of what your desires are and where they’re coming from, giving you a starting point to begin to control how you respond to your drive for instant gratification. One study found this to be an effective tactic for those with substance use issues. Researchers report that “acting with awareness and observing were associated with higher delaying gratification; which in turn was associated with lower quantity of use, which in turn was associated with fewer consequences”.

Note the consequences

Again, indulging in instant gratification isn’t always a bad thing, but it can sometimes lead to undesirable consequences—especially when it happens repeatedly over the long term. Next time you find yourself engaging in an activity that brings you instant gratification, you might simply take note of how you feel afterward. If you indulged in a food that you know doesn’t agree with you, you might feel ill. If you bought something online you know you can’t afford, you might feel guilty or concerned about your finances. Remembering—and perhaps even writing down—these outcomes can help you weigh your options when deciding whether to give in to instant gratification or delay it the next time. Even if you still do from time to time, you’ll be making a more mindful, informed choice.

Implement small delays

Even delaying yourself before fulfilling the urge for gratification of some kind can be a powerful step. For example, you might wait a few hours before opening a package that arrives in the mail or consciously wait longer than you feel compelled to to check your phone. Even small acts of defying the urge to receive rewards instantly can help you gain more control over these types of actions. 

Finding yourself over indulging?

How therapy can help

Speaking with a therapist is another way you can learn to gain greater control over your impulses. A trained counselor can help you uncover any underlying issues that may make you turn to certain instant-gratification activities, and they can assist you in developing healthy habits as well. If you’re interested in pursuing this kind of support, you can locate a provider in your local area or sign up for online therapy. Those who are interested in a more available, cost-effective option may find online therapy to be of particular interest. 

With a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can meet with from the comfort of home or anywhere you have an internet connection—and all for a cost that’s comparable to most insurance co-pays. Research suggests that in-person and virtual therapy can offer similar benefits in many cases. That means most people can select whichever option is most convenient and comfortable for them.

Takeaway

Humans are hard-wired for instant gratification for evolutionary reasons. However, in the modern day, indulging in our desire for instant gratification too often can result in negative consequences. The tips on this list can help you learn to manage these impulses.

Target disruptive behavior in therapy
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started