It’s a familiar scene: you walk into your kitchen, fully committed to your weight loss and longevity goals, and there, on the counter, is a batch of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Now it’s a faceoff: instant melt-in-your-mouth gratification versus long-term goals and prioritizing health.
Sure, cookies are a perfect blend of sugar and fat that your neurobiology is designed to crave. But, why is it that sometimes you’re able to skate right by our temptation (whether it’s the cookie, a happy hour instead of the gym, or “one more” Netflix show before bed), and other times it feels like a foregone conclusion? Even more importantly: How do you balance short-term gratification with long-term goals in a way that promotes health and longevity without relegating you to a monk-like (and likely unsustainable) existence?
Instant Gratification, Long-Term Goals, and Our Health
Unfortunately, by definition, instant gratification is at odds with optimal decision-making for long-term goals. Instant gratification is the impulse and resulting tendency to choose something that brings immediate pleasure (like, in our example, the delicious taste of a cookie) at the expense of a future benefit (weight loss or improved metabolic health, for example).
Long-term goals, on the other hand, require delayed gratification — i,e., postponement of any immediate reward for a greater future reward. Many of the lifestyle factors associated with improved lifespan and healthspan are examples of delayed gratification.
Why Is It So Hard to Resist?
If humans operated solely on logic, it would never feel like your brain is battling itself when you try to choose the carrots over the cookie. However, when presented with an option that will bring instant gratification versus a larger but far-off reward, two parts of the brain engage in a competition of sorts.
Delayed gratification of a reward requires activation of the prefrontal cortex, the most evolved part of the brain responsible for complex cognition and executive function. It’s this part of your brain that reasons that you’ll feel better if you get the baby carrots out of the fridge and ignore the cookies on the counter. Conversely, rewards that are immediate activate the more primal limbic system and dopamine response. It’s dopamine, the “feel-good hormone,” that is responsible for the rush of pleasure you feel as you bite into the ooey, gooey treat.
How to Tip the Balance in Favor of Long-Term Goals
Given the competing nature of these two systems, we need strategies to tip the scales so that the bigger, long-term goals compatible with increasing lifespan and healthspan win out.
#1. Identify Your Trigger
Did you even know you wanted a cookie before you saw the plate sitting on the counter? Contrary to popular belief, cravings aren’t always due to hunger or specific biological need (“I’m craving potato chips, I must need salt”). Scientists call eating food for pleasure “hedonic consumption,” while eating food in response to biological needs or hunger is “metabolic consumption.”
In today’s convenience-driven society, there’s no escaping easy access to all sorts of unhealthy foods, which increases the likelihood of hedonic consumption. Simply viewing food (or pictures of food) is enough to activate the dopamine-rich reward centers of the brain, and unfortunately, humans appear to be hardwired to elicit a stronger response to viewing energy-dense foods that are immediately available. (It’s why the cookie is such a formidable adversary!)
Take action: If you suspect your cravings stem from external cues, not real hunger, try changing your environment to reduce future temptations that are at odds with your long-term goals. Store treats on upper shelves of cabinets, out of your immediate line of sight; control what appears in your social media feed; or take a different route to work so you aren’t driving by your favorite bakery every day.
#2. Use Friction
One of the best ways to reduce temptation is to apply friction, not willpower, to the behaviors you want to reduce. One of the reasons this works is that much of our day is spent on autopilot, with habits governing our decisions. One study found that just by moving a candy dish a few feet closer, participants both ate significantly more candy than when the dish was placed just two meters (beyond arm’s reach) away.
Take action: To cut back on sugary treats, stop buying them to keep at home. If you really want a pastry, you’ll make the trek to a local bakery. Additionally, introducing even a small pause, like logging your meal on Zero before breaking your fast or doing 10 push-ups before entering the kitchen, can have enormous effects on behavior. And, if you sometimes choose the instant-gratification (“cookie”) option, that’s OK — the key is that you’ll now feel confident you really wanted that treat, and you didn’t just act on autopilot.
#3. Connect with Your Future Self
One of the reasons humans are notoriously bad at choosing long-term rewards is the concept known as “temporal discounting,” or assigning lower value to rewards paid out in the future (weight loss) than those available for immediate gratification (cookie). The greater the delay, the less value assigned to the reward.
While most true changes to health status take time, research shows that “episodic future thinking” (EFT), or the principle of connecting to your future self, can help you avoid discounting the delayed rewards. Overweight and obese participants who applied EFT by viewing weight-reduced images of themselves consistently chose less energetically dense snacks than those who were shown weight-increased images.
Take action: Create an emotional connection to your long-term success. Want to stick to an exercise regime and get more fit? Visualize what the end goal would look like. Maybe you’re running around with grandkids or hiking the Alps after retirement, rather than being confined to a nursing home or languishing in a hospital.
#4. Breathe Your Way to Delayed Gratification
Remember those two neural pathways? As it turns out, the prefrontal cortex, the structure inclined to guide you towards long-term rewards, is inhibited by stress. Therefore, when you make decisions during times of stress — like choosing what to eat while on a tight work deadline — you’re more likely to opt for the instant reward.
Take action: Research shows that deep breathing may be the quickest way to reduce stress and deactivate the sympathetic nervous system, allowing the prefrontal cortex and long-term reward system to re-engage. In times of stress, try to take a 3-minute “breather,” breathing in for 4 seconds and out for 6 (about six breaths per minute, or eighteen breaths in total).
Instant gratification isn’t always bad — in fact, life would be fairly dull if everyone chose the delayed reward 100% of the time. However, if you find that your impulses are consistently sabotaging your health, it’s time to tip the scales in favor of delayed gratification. Choose actions that move you closer to your long-term goals most of the time, and life — including the occasional cookie — will be a whole lot sweeter.