The American Desire For Immediate Gratification Is Hurting Us Now And In The Future

Instant gratification is the act of opting for immediate pleasure now rather than a better return in the future. From same-day delivery providers to online streaming services, it has seeped into every corner of society.

By Rebecca Hope4 min read
shutterstock 2194765149 (1)

Rather than patiently waiting for a webpage to load, users will leave a page if it doesn’t appear in two seconds or less. Instead of waiting for a hardcopy book to arrive at our front door, we download it instantly to our Kindle. We’ve never had so much access to instant experiences before, and the effects are beginning to show.

In a society led by mantras such as “live your feelings” and “treat yourself,” are we sacrificing a better future for the pleasures of today?

Instant Gratification in Sex and Relationships

Most women cannot enjoy casual sex like a man, and in fact, our experiences of casual sex are very different in comparison. There is a myriad of studies proving that women experience a great deal of negative emotions after a hookup, compared to a man who has more positive experiences. For example, unlike men, the majority of women release a large dose of the bonding hormone oxytocin, causing us to become attached to the man we’re sleeping with, whether they’re our boyfriend, husband, or one-night stand. Whereas men, generally, are able to separate feelings from sex.

Online daters can treat their partners as a product, discarding someone when they’re tired of them because “upgrades” are available. 

The lie that women can have sex like a man – along with the sexual revolution and introduction of the contraceptive pill – has created a society where sexual gratification is the norm. Sex on a first date, or during the courting period, is expected – and when women don’t want to meet this standard, men can find sex elsewhere. Rather than being gentlemanly and respecting a woman’s wishes to wait, women are faced with a dilemma: forego our instincts and consent, be coerced into having sex, or lose the guy to another woman who is willing to have sex in the initial stages of dating. Of course, there are some women who enjoy casual sex, but on a whole, it produces a negative outcome for women. 

Not only that, but the rise of the internet and dating apps has given singletons a bigger pond to fish in when looking for a partner. We have access to every type of person, all around the world. The effect we’re seeing this have in long-term relationships is that couples who meet online are six times more likely to break up. People no longer want to put in the work necessary to create a long-lasting relationship. Instead, when times get hard, many are ending their relationships because they know how easy it is to find someone new online. It’s almost as if online daters are treating their partners as a product, discarding of one another when they’re tired of them because they see that “upgrades” are available.

Is Instant Gratification Causing People To Save Less Money?

A prime example of the negative effects of instant gratification is the decrease we’re seeing in personal savings in America. In December 1982, the percentage of disposable income saved averaged 9.7%. Today, Americans’ personal saving rate is around 2.4%. There are a variety of factors that come into this, such as unemployment and inflation, however, it’s also because we aren’t wired to think about the long term.

And it’s no wonder, especially considering FMRI studies suggest that when a person imagines their future self, their brain stops acting as if they’re thinking about themselves. Instead, their brain acts as if they’re thinking about a different person entirely. This behavior makes it harder for us to take actions that will benefit our future self. As UCLA researcher Hal Hirschfield says, “Why would you save money for your future self when, to your brain, it feels like you’re just handing away your money to a complete stranger?”

Laura Carstensen is a researcher at Stanford University who studies time. After a car accident hospitalized her, she began to think about how young and old people perceive their time on earth. In one of her studies, she used virtual reality with a group of twentysomethings to help them imagine their future selves. In one condition of her experiment, 25 participants entered an immersive virtual reality environment and saw a digital representation of their current selves. In another condition, 25 different participants entered the same virtual reality environment, but this time, they saw a projection of what they would look like when they were old.

The study found that the participants who saw their current selves in the mirror only saved around $73.90. However, the participants who saw their age-morphed future selves set aside more than twice that amount, around $178.10.

When a person imagines their future self, their brain acts as if they’re thinking about a different person entirely. 

Psychologist Dr. Meg Jay writes, “People of all ages and walks of life discount the future, favoring the rewards of today over the rewards of tomorrow. We would rather have $100 this month than $150 next month. We choose the chocolate cake and the new outfit now and face the gym and the credit card bill later. This isn’t a twentysomething tendency. It’s a human tendency, one that underpins addiction, procrastination, health, oil consumption, and, yes, saving for retirement. It is often difficult to imagine and give weight to things that will happen down the line.”

As a specialist in twentysomethings, Dr. Jay writes about how young people, in particular, are prone to something called present bias. This is “the tendency of people to give stronger weight to payoffs that are closer to the present time when considering trade-offs between two future moments.” It’s hardly surprising that this is an issue that particularly affects young people, as they’re often met with well-meaning clichés from friends such as “You’re only young once” or “Live your feelings.” These enthusiastic phrases encourage “now-or-never behaviors,” which have been found to make us unhappy in the long term.

Healthcare and Cosmetic Procedures

We have a responsibility to ourselves to take care of our bodies. That means eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep. These habits will save us medical bills and pain in the future. However, with many “fixes” available in pill form, most choose to take the easy route. For example, a study found that people would rather take a pill or sip tea to treat high blood pressure than exercise. A lot of the time, medicating only masks the problem and doesn’t treat the cause. Once again, this is another example of how a quick and easy solution may cost a person in the future.

Liposuction is another great example. Instead of putting the time and effort into dieting, exercising, and living a healthier life, many choose to simply have a cosmetic procedure. Not only is this procedure dangerous, but a person loses the chance to develop life-long habits, such as discipline, that could help them in a variety of situations in the future.

Closing Thoughts

Studies show that delayed gratification – “the resistance to the temptation of an immediate pleasure in the hope of obtaining a valuable and long-lasting reward in the long-term” – is one of the most effective personal traits of successful people. However, showing too much self-control may take away flexibility, spontaneity, and an openness to experiences. For example, being too strict with money and purely focusing on saving for the future may take the fun out of today. Equally, overspending and over-indulging in instant gratifications may cost you in the long run – maybe you won’t be able to retire when you’d like or need to. The trick is to find a balance. Knowing when to say yes and no to instant gratification is the ultimate skill that must be mastered to enjoy the present and the future.

Don’t miss anything! Sign up for our weekly newsletter and get curated content weekly!