• We've all heard patience is a virtue, but it can also have a very real impact on your life

  • Dr Sheheryar Banuri explores the link between patience, delayed gratification, and overall wellbeing

The question we’re going to look at in this article: how do we deal with recurring adversity? How, when the universe appears to be telling us to give up, do we ignore the signals and plough ahead? How, ultimately, do we learn to power through? How do we develop resilience? How can we learn to be patient?

To set about answering these questions, we first have to figure out what patience is.

In a seminal paper on the topic of self-control, researchers wrote that infants are ‘ruled entirely by a pleasure principle that demands immediate satisfaction’. Any parent of very young children knows this to be true and will have experienced precisely this in the howling demands for affection, food or a nappy change. Over time, as a child grows into an adult, they manage to learn self-control. They learn to delay immediate rewards for future (often larger) rewards.

However, there is considerable variation across people in the extent to which they can exert self-control. Some seem able to delay rewards consistently, others almost never. In addition, individuals vary in what they apply self-control to, with some able to do so across multiple domains and decisions, while others are only able to do so in some domains but not in others. For instance, a person may always be able to maintain militaristic discipline when it comes to their work life and yet transform into a tiny baby ruled by the pleasure principle when in the presence of ice cream.

It may seem self-evident that those that are able to suppress their infantile tendencies are more successful than those that do not. But is there any data to back this up? A classic experiment authored by Walter Mischel and others on how delayed gratification works seems to show this. Young children are given a choice between a small immediate reward and a larger reward with a time delay. The rewards are typically things the children value, most famously a marshmallow placed in front of them – hence the name of Mischel’s bestselling book: The Marshmallow Test. The delay can be large (a week) or small (ten minutes).

This example offers a simple way to measure delayed gratification: those that take the smaller immediate reward struggle to delay gratification. Follow-up studies showed that children who prefer to delay rewards demonstrate higher intelligence, are more likely to delay gratification in other areas, and exhibit greater tendencies towards helping others.

Overall, the studies reported that those children who were able to delay gratification experienced better life outcomes as they age. Willpower really seems to be one of life’s silver bullets – if you can delay gratification and stick out doing something you don’t particularly want to do for longer, chances are you’re going to be happier and more successful than your peers who struggle. Clearly then, being able to delay gratification is an essential skill to cultivate.

Delayed gratification and patience

Our ability to delay gratification is broadly defined as ‘patience’. Very young children exhibit a wide variety in patience – some children are extremely patient, willing to wait, and some . . . less so. But if children exhibit such diversity in their levels of patience, what does that mean for patience itself? Is it something that’s innate? Or is it something that we can learn? What’s the psychology of patience?

If it’s something that we learn, it will be an essential tool as we try to build a decisive mind.

Studies in patience are not just related to children and adolescents. Patience has also been studied in adults. Results from a study involving delaying a financial reward showed that patience is significantly related to having a lower body mass index, lower likelihood of smoking and higher levels of exercise. 

One study gives an extremely clear indication that patience is helpful in our ability to set goals and stick to them. Whilst trying to understand different types of patience, researchers split domains where patience was exercised into interpersonal, life hardships and daily hassles. 

Patience here is understood to be a personality trait, defined as the likelihood an individual will ‘wait calmly in the face of frustration, adversity, or suffering’. The author correlates how patient the subjects were in the lab with self-reported measures of goal pursuits and found that individuals high in patience exerted more effort in pursuit of their goals, and furthermore reported higher satisfaction from achieving their goals.

This implies that the intrinsic rewards we receive from attaining a goal are higher in those individuals who are also more patient – a double whammy. Overall, the results show that individuals with higher degrees of patience are more likely to exert effort to achieve a goal, likely driven by higher perceived rewards for goal attainment. Unfortunately, the majority of people aren’t especially patient. We need to learn patience. Can we?

Can we learn patience?

The author of this study went on to report the results of an intervention designed to increase patience. This intervention was intended to help the participants boost their levels of patience, like doing a guided meditation. 

Some researchers believe that patience is a personality trait – it’s fixed, innate and can’t be changed. Those pre-schoolers who were able to resist the delicious marshmallow would continue to be more patient than their peers who could not. But that might not be the whole story. The scientific results are promising, but still early. They show that in the immediate aftermath of an intervention, patience levels increase; there is at least some evidence that you can cultivate patience.

Measures of patience, in both the lab and the field, are associated with impulsive behaviours. Other studies show that patience is predictive of credit card borrowing and financial literacy, smoking, alcohol consumption and nutrition.

But if you feel you are low in patience, there is hope. Evidence suggests it can be a malleable trait – certain interventions, such as meditation and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), can aid you in boosting your levels of patience. And the simple practice of being patient, necessary for all of us at various times in our lives, would, it seems likely, give rise to improving patience.

So, remember, patience really is a virtue.

Dr Sheheryar Banuri is the author of The Decisive Mind: How to Make the Right Choice Every Time

Further reading

7 key reflective questions to ask yourself

What stops us from changing?

Feel busy all the time? You might have more control than you think

Enough is enough: Is your ambition making you happy?