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Temptation and happiness

It is our capacity to resist temptation rather than our IQ that is the most accurate predictor of our future happiness. What sweet irony, says David Servan-Schreiber

Jane is four years old and her parents have agreed to let her take part in a psychological experiment at Stanford University. Professor Walter Mischel sits Jane down in front of a pink marshmallow, with a little bell beside her. He tells her that he’s going to leave her alone for 15 minutes, and if she manages not to eat the marshmallow while he’s gone, he’ll give her another one when he gets back. If Jane can’t resist the temptation, she only has to ring the bell — but she won’t get the extra one.

A camera records Jane’s anxious fidgeting during the professor’s absence. She starts by twisting about on her chair, then tries looking around the room. When desire takes hold of her again, she starts kicking her legs about; then finally she covers her eyes with her hands. But she doesn’t ring the bell. Once the 15 minutes are up, Professor Mischel comes in as promised, congratulates her and gives her the second marshmallow.

A lot of children who took part in the test didn’t hold out as well as Jane. Some gave up within the first minute. Others managed a bit longer, going so far as to lick the table around the coveted marshmallow, yet even they gave up before the 15 minutes were over.

Professor Mischel’s research team followed the children who took part in the experiment for the next 30 years to see how they turned out. The results of this study have dramatically altered our modern view about what we need to achieve happiness.

Importantly, there was little direct link between IQ and the ability to resist temptation. Some of the most ‘intelligent’ children cracked quicker than others with a considerably lower IQ. The children who were able to keep their goal in mind and use their imagination to resist temptation were better adjusted as adolescents — they had more friends, their teachers liked them better, they coped better with stress and were more articulate.

They also ended up with more satisfying jobs and had far fewer problems with alcohol or drugs at the age of 32 than those who, at four years old, had given in to the temptation of a pink marshmallow. It turned out that the better predictor of success as an adult was not the IQ test, but the ability to control themselves during the marshmallow test.

This is encouraging news because our IQ is something we’re born with, and hard to improve upon. On the other hand, we can all learn to strengthen our willpower. Yoga teaches us to observe our desires, and learn how to master them. With practice, this ability extends to everyday life. For example, ‘I really want another piece of cake, but I can simply note how much I want it, direct my breathing towards the desire and see what happens if I do nothing.’

It helps children to develop these qualities if they are congratulated and rewarded for effort and persistence. And what helps us as adults is to know that everyone finds it difficult to wait for that second marshmallow.

But, as time goes by, the more we are able to act as sympathetic observers of our own desires, the easier they will be to control.