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The Case for Failing the Life Marshmallow Test

habits science stress Apr 25, 2023


If you're reading this newsletter, chances are that (1) you've heard of the marshmallow test and (2) you've set your life up around passing it with flying colors. 

Nice work!

The marshmallow test, of course, comes from a classic 1972 experiment  conducted at Stanford University. Children were given the choice between eating one marshmallow now or getting two marshmallows if they were willing to wait for 15 minutes (all while staring at the marshmallow in front of them). 

This research, which was recently called into question, found that the children who waited for the second marshmallow went on to learn more, earn more, and even have a slimmer waist line.

The conventional moral of this experiment is obvious: be the disciplined kind of person who passes the marshmallow test. Don't be that indulgent slob who's in capable of waiting for the second marshmallow.

But we think it's more complicated than that. We've begun to observe both in ourselves and the couples we work with a common pattern: many of us have become so adept at passing the marshmallow test, we've forgotten how to eat the marshmallow.

We have, in other words, taken delayed gratification too far. We've organized our lives around ideas like:

  • "It's better to save now, spend later."
  • "It's better to work hard now, do that vacation later."
  • "It's better to take the night and weekend meetings now, play with the kids later."

The trap here is obvious. We're so fixated on hoarding these life marshmallows for later that we've forgotten how to eat them today.

To make matters worse, certain life marshmallows -- time with your partner, time with kids, and time with parents -- may not be around when later comes.

So many of us may need a little help learning a different skill: failing the marshmallow test.

How do you do that?




1. Enjoy the mini marshmallows.

There's an invisible force keeping us from enjoying many of the small treats in life: guilt.

You may want to take Friday afternoon off from work to go for a walk with a friend, take a nap, or catch up on your favorite Netflix series, but guilt is the force that shames you for even having the thought. 

You might want to splurge on a night out at that fancy new restaurant in town, but guilt is the part of you that says, "That's too extravagant."

Guilt is, in other words, what keeps us from eating some of life's most delicious marshmallows.

The only way to overcome the barrier of guilt is to steer straight into it. Consider, for instance, the following practice: each week, do one thing that feels like an outrageous and wholly unproductive act of indulgence. 

When you do this, you may notice the guilt arising. But do it anyway. Enjoy it. Savor it.


2. Reflect on the jumbo marshmallows.

We recently came to a stunning realization. Our daughter, who was just learning how to walk and talk, is now almost twelve, six short years from going away to college.

The thought shattered our disciplined, marshmallow-hoarding, mindset on life.

We realized that constantly postponing time together as a family in the name of today's pressing work priorities wasn't going to end well.

So we decided to rethink our work, our time, and our careers to come back into alignment with our priority of spending time together as a family while we're all living under the same roof.

How about you?

What are the changes coming up for you and your partner?

How long until your kids leave?

How long until your body can no longer take that trip, climb that mountain, or ride those waves?

These are the kinds of questions you might explore together to see whether it makes sense to stop waiting and start eating that delicious life marshmallow that's sitting right in front of you.

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