A five year-old child was sitting alone in a room with a marshmallow placed a few inches in front of her. She was told that she could eat it immediately, but if she waited just fifteen minutes, she would be rewarded with an additional marshmallow.
Six hundred other children were invited onto the campus of Stanford University in the early 1970’s to take the same test, which became known as the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment (delightfully illustrated in the following video).
Only one out of three children were successful in waiting the full fifteen minutes to earn the second marshmallow. In followup studies of both groups of children, researchers found that the ability to defer gratification correlated to a wide range of positive life outcomes, including:
- Better social competence (emotional and impulse control)
- Higher cognitive skills (as measured by SAT scores)
- Better ability to cope with frustration and stress, and
- Healthier lifestyles (as measured by body mass index).
These results should not surprise anyone who reads the Bible. Scripture repeatedly commends the ability to control our impulses, to resist temptation, and to cultivate self-control (see Prov. 16:32; Rom. 6:12; 1Cor. 9:27; Gal. 5:22-24; James 3:2; 2 Pet. 1:5-6). These qualities are key elements of two of the core disciplines of relational wisdom: self-awareness and self-engagement.
The development of these character qualities is heavily dependent on our God-given ability to change our habits (see, Eph. 4:20-24). Therefore, over the next few weeks, we will explore both the theology and the neurology of changing how we behave. You will be able to apply these insights to a wide range of behaviors you may wish to improve in the coming year, including your spiritual disciplines, eating and exercise, and relational habits.
As you’ll see, if you learn to apply these insights to one simple habit (which we will call a “keystone habit”), it can start a cascade of changes in other areas of your life, whether it’s the ability to resist a marshmallow and improve your health … or to control your emotions and improve your relationships.
– Ken Sande
- How would you rate your ability to defer gratification, that is, to postpone an immediate enjoyment or outcome in order to experience a better enjoyment or outcome? What are some of the areas where you find it hardest to defer gratification? What are some areas where you find it easiest?
- Experts have found that 40% of our actions are guided by habits rather than deliberate decisions. What are some of your habitual behaviors that serve you well each day? What habits do not serve you well?
- If you could change just one habit in the next thirty days, what would it be? Name three other habits you’d like to change in the next six months. How could these changes impact your personal relationships and your walk with God?
- Think about your children, grandchildren, nephews or nieces, or the children in your church. How might their lives be different if God used you to help them learn how to cultivate good habits at a young age? As you develop these disciplines in your life you’ll be able to pass them on to the next generation!