It is more prevalent today than ever before. Enabled by the internet, smart phones, social media, and all sorts of other technologies that connect people with information, experiences, and entertainment at a faster and faster rate, our culture has come more and more to expect, and seek out what is commonly referred to as “instant gratification”.
Instant Gratification is defined as the desire for, or expectation of, some sort of result with minimal to no wait. It can easily be summed up as having an “I WANT IT NOW” attitude. A good example of this is the expectation that a web page be displayed on a computer screen or tablet pretty much as soon as one finishes typing in the web address. In fact, some smart phones have taken this concept one step further, trying to anticipate where users are trying to go, or what application they are likely to want to use before they even take the time to type something in.
Society’s move toward instant gratification did not begin with the internet. Several decades before most people gained access to the net, fast food and television were already directing people towards choices that produce quicker results. But, changes over the past quarter century have definitely accelerated the move in that direction.
In the early 1990s, being a demanding and highly impatient person was often still considered a negative trait. Today, we are commended for making anything and everything operate quicker (unfortunately, sometimes at the expense of quality). And, when people await what likes they will receive on an Instagram post within minutes of posting it, they are certainly acting within what is now the bounds of normal human behavior.
This shift toward instant gratification has penetrated nearly all aspects of our society. It has become so prevalent that, despite the fact that many people have become aware of the adverse effects of constantly searching for instant gratification, and have even begun to look for ways to rehabilitate their attention spans, it is a cultural shift that is nearly impossible to avoid.
For example, studies have shown that the average introduction to a song has reduced from 20 seconds to 5 seconds. So, even those who have wholeheartedly chosen to reject the culture of instant gratification and seek out different experiences, are now listening to songs with shorter introductions, produced to cater to a culture that now demands to hear the hook sooner- otherwise, they will press the button and turn to the next song! At work, regardless of one’s views on instant vs. delayed gratification, people are being increasingly asked to produce shorter presentations, shorter documents, and the types of products that produce rewards for users quicker.
It is for this reason this topic must be addressed. Nobody exists in a vacuum. Cultural trends find a way to impact nearly all people, including those who did not actively chose to participate.
The incentives that drive people towards instant gratification are easy to understand. A “reward” is received for little to no effort. And, when humans perceive effort, time is often factored in.
However, the unfortunate truth that many people are observing is that this new barrage of precieved great deals, with respect to effort vs. reward, have not necessary resulted in a better life.
The time has come to reconsider choices, especially those that pertain to choosing between endeavors that require more effort vs. less effort, or more time vs. less time. While selecting the latter, instant gratification does often feel good at the moment, but the truth is…
It is Often the Less Healthy Decision
This it true for the mind, the body, and the spirit. It is easier to go to a fast food restaurant, or heat up a hot pocket, than it is to plan out a healthy meal that provides balanced nutrition. It is easier to get a mental “high” of sorts from drugs and alcohol than it is to feel rewarded from long strenuous exercise.
And, unfortunately, it is easier to respond to a message on Facebook, or to SnapChat, than it is to have an actual conversation or experience with someone (which is what builds actual friendships).
The Happiness is More Brief
Due to certain aspects of how the human brain functions, the quicker one receives a “reward” (that being the good feeling one receives due to a specific event or occurrence), the shorter lived the positive feeling tends to be. For example, there is a dichotomy with regards to people’s use and responses to any controlled substance, which has a direct impact on the brain. One can smoke marijuana and be high almost instantly, but for modestly potent strains, the feeling will typically last less than an hour. One can be high for several hours from a fat soluble edible of the same potency, but must wait 30-60 minutes before feeling the effect.
The same dichotomy exists for different drugs, and different potencies. The quicker its impacts can be felt, the quicker the impacts recede. A similar pattern can be seen with regards to the brain’s response to normal food and drink, as well as pleasure delivering experiences. Think of sex with absolutely no foreplay, no build-up.
Even the Same Experiences are Less Satisfying
When the wait is shorter. Look at how excited Cubs fans were, and still are, about having finally won a World Series.
We Lose Patience
Over time, being the constant recipient of instant gratification can cause people to lose patience far more easily. This will cause people to abandon pursuits of all kinds far more quickly. In fact, in the United States, the rate of entrepreneurship is down over the past several decades, with a particularly steep decline that corresponds with the proliferation of social media and smart phones in the mid to late 2000s
We Don’t Think Long Term
When the brain is consistently occupied with everything on short time frames, the capacity for long-term planning is diminished. According to the Federal Reserve, the U.S. personal savings rate is nearly 50% lower than it was during the 1970s. Saving money is one of the many long-term pursuits, along with building relationships of all kinds, health, and knowledge base development, that have a significant impact on life satisfaction. All these pursuits appear to be diminished when one constantly pursues what is quick, easy, and short-term.
There are Some Unforeseen Negative Consequences
Yeah, it is great that one can log onto their favorite social media site, and post something that either validates their opinions, helps diffuse their anger, or gives them a sense of moral superiority on something. And, that is a quick reward. But, what is it doing to friendships with those who happen not to feel that way. From personal experience, it feels as if social media has done just as much to damage relationships as it has to enhance them.
And it is not just social media. It is common for unforeseen adverse consequences to follow short-term thinking and communicating. Companies that prioritize next quarter’s earnings over long-term planning may find themselves obsolete in a few years. Communications in any form, even in person, can be taken the wrong way when not thought out, or expressed properly. And, who hasn’t felt the 10 A.M. regret that results from having one too many drinks the night before, and/or waking up somewhere they do not recognize?
It Takes us Away From More Fulfilling Experiences
Yes, there is a place in the world for instant gratification. The human experience is full of challenges, some of which require short-term thinking, short-term solutions and short-term rewards. Most of the problems listed above are a result, not of one particular pursuit of instant gratification, but of people having become conditioned to primarily pursue instant gratification.
Often times, the most fulfilling experiences are the ones that take time, effort, and planing.
Instant gratification is tool in our lives, the same way long-term planning is, the same way social interaction, meditation, and exercise are. All have their purpose, and there are many purposes for which instant gratification serves. The key is to recognizes that western society has become way to obsessed with receiving things with little to no effort or wait. And to understand that instant gratification needs to be thought of as a tool, like medication, or the occasional ice cream binge to get over a bad situation, it should not be the default!