Lent and the psychology of delayed gratification

by Garrett Boyer | Divine Mercy University


Ashes are distributed at St. Helen Church in Glendale, Ariz., in this 2016 photo. Ash Wednesday – March 1 this year in the Western church calendar – marks the start of Lent, a season of sacrifice, prayer and charity. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

Imagine placing fresh, warm chocolate chip cookies in front of a group of six-year-old children and presenting them with the option to either eat a cookie now, or wait to eat it and receive a second cookie as a reward for their patience. This exact scenario was the subject of an illuminating experiment conducted in the early 1970s by revered psychologist Walter Mischel. As you can imagine, many of the children Mischel tested promptly ate the cookie. There were some, however, who waited to receive the larger reward, even though it was delayed.

During Lent, we become like those children. The Lenten season affords us an opportunity each year to make conscious acts of penance like foregoing a treat, logging off of Facebook, abstaining from that glass of wine at dinner or declining to eat out. In Lent, we can strengthen our character and build our virtue by delaying our gratification until Easter. In other words, we don't grab for that cookie so readily.

Doctor Mischel concluded from his cookie experiment that the children who delayed gratification received more benefits than just an extra sweet morsel. In a longitudinal study, he found that many of the kids who were able to resist immediate gratification did better in school and demonstrated fewer behavioral problems. They tended to get higher SAT scores and excel in their professional roles as adults. In contrast those children desiring an instant reward exhibited more behavioral issues in their youth and grew up with higher risks of addiction and even incarceration.

The psychological benefits of delayed gratification are all well and good, but for the Christian, these are secondary considerations. We embrace our cross and faithfully do our penance not only in reparation for our sins, but because we hope to receive that greater delayed reward, the salvation of our souls. St. Thomas Aquinas considered penance to be a special virtue. Our penances and self-denials are a way to unite ourselves to the suffering of Christ and cooperate in his salvific work.

One problem: self-denial is hard! Can we simply muster up our will power, grit our teeth, and bear it for forty days? Maybe. But Doctor Mischel offers a strategy that may be more effective.

Queen Elizabeth II. We weren't thinking of her before we saw her name just now. Nevertheless, she has made an appearance in our mind. She may remain in our mind until some other thought comes along. The same principle applies when we are tempted to cheat on our penances. If we just try to conscientiously will the temptations away, clenching our fists while thinking about that cup of coffee we want, we set ourselves up for failure.

Doctor Mischel recommends shifting our attention to something else that is also pleasurable. Putting on our favorite music, playing a video game or card game, taking a walk, or jogging are all great things to do. Removing ourselves from the environment where the temptation is strong, and substituting those tempting thoughts with other stimuli will give us a better chance of overcoming temptations rather than relying on will-power alone.

The Lord spent forty days enduring temptations, yet did not falter. We are not divine, and our struggle against temptation is real. Nevertheless, we have tools at our disposal to help us remain faithful to our penances. The strategy of distraction may help. Additionally, let us invoke the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom and prudence to face our Lenten penances with confidence that we will indeed receive a greater reward with the Resurrection of the Lord at Easter.

Mr. Boyer is a doctoral candidate in Clinical Psychology at Divine Mercy University’s Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, Virginia, and a native of the Fargo Diocese.