Yesterday my pastor mentioned an experiment by a psychologist named Walter Mitchell, as described by Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence, in which a group of four-year-olds are set in a room around a table and each one is given a marshmallow. The experimenter tells the children that they can each eat their marshmallow once he leaves the room, but if they wait till he gets back then he'll give a second marshmallow to those who waited. As described on this page about emotional intelligence:

After fourteen years, the psychologists tracked the children and tested them. The differences were dramatic. Those who resisted temptation were more confident and motivated and better able to cope with the frustrations of life. In addition, their academic results suggested that the ability to delay gratification contributes powerfully to intellectual potential.

Self-control is the key to much success and happiness in life, and one of the keys to self-control is learning to take pleasure in making good choices. A person may not think that vegetables taste good, but there's more to eating than just the pleasure of tasting food; the way we eat will have long term consequences on our health and happiness that we can't forsee in the present. However, if we condition ourselves to take pride in making good choices, we can trick ourselves into enjoying vegetables because we're doing what's right.

The same strategy works for coercing ourselves to do all sorts of things we don't want to do. We use our minds to create purely mental rewards for behaviors that don't have immediately tangible benefits. Abstaining from sex may not feel like a fun thing to do at certain times, but if we invest ourselves in a moral code that values chastity then we can take righteous pleasure in denying our carnal lusts. We tell ourselves that there will be negative consequences in the future if we indulge ourselves now -- and that is often true -- and we encourage ourselves to enjoy the prospect of avoiding those future hurts. But the immediate reward is entirely within our heads.



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