Friday, April 3, 2015

The Lost Art Of Postponing Gratification


            Recently, I had the opportunity to discuss my article “The Need To Have Things Right Away” with my good friend Dr. Jorge Cappon, professor emeritus of psychology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and well known psychoanalyst.  Dr. Cappon had his own ideas regarding the influence of technological innovation on the need for immediate gratification, and I thought it would be informative to discuss his psychoanalytically-based ideas here and then to elaborate on them further with some of my ideas.  Dr. Cappon is interested in the relationship between technological change and human emotional development.

            One of the most important things that a child learns as he grows up is self-control.  A baby wants what he wants right away and, to a certain extent, during his early days of life, his basic needs are usually satisfied in a timely manner.  A baby needs to get fed frequently and needs to be held frequently.  On the other hand, even a baby experiences a certain time lag between expressing his needs through crying and actually satisfying them.  A caregiver may be in another room or involved in a task that requires his immediate attention before he goes to the infant.  So even a baby experiences a little frustration.

            Dr. Cappon suggests the following hypothetical situation.  Suppose a baby could be fed on demand with a machine connected to him in such a way that he wouldn’t experience any frustration at all.  Such a baby would never develop his mental faculties properly.  When a baby doesn’t get milk right away, he develops his creative thinking by fantasizing about the milk.  Without any frustration, and while continually attached to our hypothetical machine, the baby would become an idiot.

            In the real world, as the baby grows up, he is increasingly expected to postpone gratification for what he wants.  Different cultures have different timelines for this self-control, some expecting more self-control earlier than others.  But all of them look at self-control and being able to postpone gratification as being an essential part of growing up and eventually becoming an adult.

            Growing up is a painful process.  It is so much more comfortable to remain immature.  It is uncomfortable to have to postpone gratification by having to study in order to obtain diplomas and degrees and thus to have the qualifications for a good job.  It is uncomfortable to have to work in order to obtain the money that allows one to buy the products and the services one desires.

            Now how does all this relate to the influences of modern technological living environments.  In pre-industrial societies, most of the products and services that people desired would require work to obtain them and these products and services took time to create.  In the world of traditional primary experience, things did not simply appear in one’s field of experience by pressing a button or a computer key.  But when radio, phonographs and television appeared, whole mini-worlds could be created or at least recreated by the consumer, with a few effortless frictionless processes relating to turning on the machines.  Now there are video games and computers.  Video games are magical game worlds, where one can play quickly and win (or lose) quickly.  Whether one wins or loses, one has the control to keep playing quickly and relatively frictionlessly until one does win.  With a computer or iPad or smartphone, one has the opportunity to find, create, and control many different kinds of phenomena.  As technological innovation advances on, many processes that occur on a computer occur quicker and quicker.  Furthermore, many life processes are now made more frictionless through the Internet of Things.    As all this happens, the capacity for patience and self-control gradually breaks down in young people, as they increasingly develop expectations for what they want to appear quicker and quicker.

            We are accustomed to looking at frustration as a negative phenomenon, but there is a difference between frustration that puts a drag on moving towards a goal, and frustration that puts a total block on moving towards a goal.  In the first case, the frustration creates an ongoing  moving connection to one’s grounding while traveling over it.  This kind of frustration is basically a constructive emotional friction that actually keeps one connected to the external world while moving towards a goal.  This kind of positive frustration can lead to dreaming about the goal (as Dr. Cappon noted), while experiencing the drag created by external impediments.  Nevertheless, the dream just reinforces and guides the movement towards the goal in the external world.  It is a dream that is grounded in certain important aspects of the real external world.

            This is very different from the frustration generated by an impassable obstacle on one’s journey towards a goal.  This latter situation leads to dreams that replace reality rather than guide and reinforce reality.  The kind of dream that replaces reality leads to mentally dwelling in frictionless experiential vacuums that compensate for the unbearable static stimuli created by the impassable obstacles in the real external world.

            However without some frustration, one experiences his external world as a kind of frictionless experiential vacuum.  One floats towards his goal in a numbing mental state.  More precisely, there is no traction, no friction-filled connection to the external world.  One arrives at his goal, at his product or service, in a state of numbness, so one is incapable of savoring, fully enjoying, fully appreciating the product or service.  Neither the journey to the product or service, nor the product or service itself, contribute in any way to helping the person to truly feel alive.  There is no meaningful organic imprint as can be found in a grappling assertive acquisition of the product or service.

            Postponing gratification through a frustrating experience that acts as a drag rather than a  block can ultimately increase satisfaction and enjoyment when the product or service is finally acquired.  One can stay grounded in the product or service for a while without immediately having to move on to another product or service.

            So frustration is not always something that is a negative.  By providing friction, it provides a meaningful conscious focused journey to the desired product or service, a meaningful life narrative, a rich vibrant experience.  By overcoming the drag from the friction, a person feels empowered, as he actually grapples with elements in his field of experience and makes meaningful organic imprints.  By providing traction in his field of experience, the frustration allows a person to stay grounded in his living environment, so that he can fully experience the product or service.  By staying grounded in his living environment, the person doesn’t float off into a numbing experiential vacuum, where he would constantly need to fill up his inner emptiness with more and more products and services to overcome his numbness.

            A baby is not fully aware, not fully focused, and because he can’t satisfy his basic needs by himself, not fully grounded in his field of experience.  There is always a little lag time between when a baby cries for milk and the satisfaction of that need, even when he has a doting mother.  As he grows up, he gradually is expected to postpone his gratifications for longer and longer periods of time, and as has been indicated, this is considered a basic part of psychological maturation.  But the process of psychological maturation is being gradually more and more suppressed as modern technology increasingly diminishes the time of postponing gratification in many different life situations.  With smartphones, with wearable computers, with the Internet of Things, everything is happening right away.  As a result, young people aren’t growing up in the way they are supposed to, and they are becoming addicted to immediate gratification.  How are people like this going to be able to survive unforeseen crises and catastrophes?  What is going to happen to the human race, when people develop such fragile psyches?  This is why we should look very carefully at technology that supposedly does us the favor of making life easier and easier for us.  Easier now may mean life becoming much more difficult in the future.
(c) 2015 Laurence Mesirow

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