There are two ways with dealing with being alone during Christmas. One is to indulge in a spiral downward of self-pity and sadness. Whether triggered by the on-the-minute Facebook newsfeed of the latest tropical retreat your friend went to, the sequin and glitter clad party celebrations your friends back home are posting from, or the Instagram filtered turkey centerpiece family dinner photo, most people who have experienced the “fear of missing out” syndrome will recognize its symptoms. It begins with a pang of envy. Next comes the anxiety, the self-doubt, the gnawing sense of inadequacy. Finally those feelings fizzle, leaving you bilious with a sense of sorrow.
The other is to refuse this holiday is a big deal anyway. You are living in China – where Christmas is not traditionally celebrated, and even those infamous Coca Cola trucks and Mariah Carey’s YouTube videos need a VPN connection. In homes and streets back home, the things that make Christmas different - from the special TV shows to the closed shops and the eerily quiet streets - all serve as constant reminders of what everyone else is doing that day. In China however, you soon forget what it is you're not doing. Christmas really does kind of disappear.
And I am pretty sure I have bounced back between big baby and wannabe adult depending on my mood. This Christmas, however, was when I had to practice the apparent grown up skill of “delayed gratification.”
At 8:45am on Christmas morning I awoke in my apartment in Shanghai, after a grueling three-day business trip in Hong Kong. I couldn’t wait for a cup of tea and honey toast in bed watching my all time favorite Christmas movie, ‘Elf,’ followed by Christmas mass service and finally arriving just in time for work at the office. All of this I would do alone.
Spending Christmas alone is generally assumed to be a bad thing. Mine may sound desperately sad and lonely. But in my experience of this ultimately ‘different’ Christmas suggests that any mockery or pity is displaced. Inspiration might be more appropriate.
You see the truth is, I technically had a choice of whether or not to be in China for the holidays but due to work restraints and not wanting to exhaust my entire gasp ten (!) annual leave days, that choice was an unspoken bu (不). So in that respect I did make a choice. But a choice for career prospects, personal development, future rewards and experiences.
These are known as the ‘promises’ of delayed gratification. In the life machine, you put in hard work and good things come in return – good karma, good grades, and a good pack on the back. The concept of “delayed gratification” is admittedly a new one to me. “Don’t add sugar to your coffee,” “Don’t stay in; go out for a run,” “Don’t wait until the last minute.” Perhaps because deprivation is the way I live.
But I have two forces that operate within me: the belief that in sacrifice I will attract good and the force of my desire that seeks instant gratification. To me, the first is honorable and instant gratification is slimy. In my attempt to balance these two impulses, I have formed my own habits, which have evolved into compulsions about what desires I can submit to and which I have to restrain. They tell me that I am twenty-three years old once, that this is the time to make mistakes. I can pay in sleepless nights for the possibility of engaging in the magical marginal behaviors that only occur between 2 and 4 am. I can go to parties almost naked because I will never look this good and I can still claim my youth. In a world that condemns the enactment of impulses, at twenty-three, I can get a free pass.
The truth is there is no foolproof formula and it takes a lot of work and a lot of waiting, before the good things come, and the good things are not always genuine. The observable results are mainly votes of affirmation that we are doing the right things and that we are decent people. I do not actually the feel the effects of intellectual or monetary stimulation when I turn in a proposal that I worked until midnight on, which is someone’s assessment that I have fulfilled an expectation. I expect pleasure to arrive to me after I toil, after I’ve received a pay rise and proceed to the next task. In other words, the promises require patience.
And there’s the rub. Patience is not a virtue that most hyper-connected, power-hungry humans today are accustomed to. Working for eventual pleasure may have risen in the mid-17th century as part of the “American Way” when the Puritan colonists settled in New England, believing in Calvinist ideals that the “hard worker” was part of the “elect” and thus going to heaven. The movement then was “work hard, play later.” Rather our culture has roots in religion and philosophy as “work now, play when you die.”
Puritanism is Christianity and Christianity worships martyrdom. Jesus after all, died for the sins of millions of people that he didn’t know, performing the ultimate delayed gratification. And to continue the retrospective biblical trajectory, Eve gave into the allure of the apple, consumed the instant sweet gratification, and so humans have been eternally condemned.
Furthermore, with an estimated 600,000 people dying from work related stress and its effects in China - currently ranked number one worldwide for exhaustion related deaths - this mantra transcends social and geo-political borders too.
But just how much self-control is too much?
I recall the famous psychological experiment conducted by Walter Mischel in the late 1960s. In the Marshmallow Test, Mr. Mischel asked a preschool child to choose between receiving one small reward now (say, one marshmallow or one cookie) and waiting a short amount of time — about 10 minutes — to receive two rewards (two marshmallows or two cookies). The scientists were hoping to identify the particular brain regions that allow some people to delay gratification and control their temper. They were also conducting a variety of genetic tests, as they searched for the hereditary characteristics that influence the ability to wait for a second marshmallow.
The Marshmellow Test posits that children who possess the ability to voluntarily exercise self-restraint and delay instant gratification produce higher SAT scores, live a healthier lifestyle, and a possess a greater sense of self-worth later in life than their peers who were unable to resist temptation. Those of us (like myself) who have a natural inclination to resist the allure of instant gratification are in luck; the ability to delay gratification for the sake of future consequences is commended as an acquirable skill.
Instant gratification is sketchy because at its extreme, it can lead to obesity, bankruptcy, and unwanted pregnancies, but deferred gratification might be over-valued. Waiting for future fulfillment might just be a practice that is necessary to thrive in our cultural structures that demand it, and not a virtue in itself. There is the common saying that life happens while you’re waiting. But where is the satisfaction in postponing satisfaction to a time when we probably will not care anymore? Any more importantly, just how many of us are actually waiting?
In an “anywhere, anytime” culture, choice can be an inherently stressful luxury; every time we make a choice, we’re turning down a myriad of options and outcomes. But with Facebook, say, we can decide to delay our want for instant gratification while remaining connected, taunting ourselves with glimpses of the wild evening that may have been instead of getting a good night’s sleep in time for tomorrow’s 9am meeting.
The truth was that Mischel wasn’t really measuring will power or self-control. But how well the kids made a situation work for them. Society’s equation of situations like ‘save now, enjoy later.’ Or ’being alone’ as ‘lonely’ is instead what should be questioned. Did I really need that company or did everyone else think I needed that company? After all I did have friends in the city to reach out to. Was I really at peace in my solitude or was I a tragic figure pretending I wasn’t? Who was running my life and my choices, me or “them”?
The children want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can’t control the world, but we can change how we think about it.
Since at the end, the problem with delayed gratification is that the “want” still remains. Learning to deal with impulses isn’t so much about building up self-control as it is training yourself to appeal to certain emotions – countering the ‘needs’ with the ‘wants’; distinguishing the importance of the ‘now’ from the ‘later.’ It's known, for example, that sadness can make us even more impatient than we are normally. When we are depressed, we tend to make decisions that devalue future promises in favor of the here and now.
But what about other emotions? If sadness exacerbates impatience, is it possible that positive emotions might diminish it? David DeSteno of Northeastern University affirms that while happiness does not have any obvious connection to judgment or rewards, gratitude might. They decided to compare gratitude and global happiness, to see if either one boosts patience. His findings showed that the intensity of gratitude directly predicted the volunteers' increasing levels of patience. After all, gratitude is a discrete social emotion linked to cooperation and altruism, and as such might be instrumental in reinforcing a future perspective.
Part of being human is that effortful self-regulation can and does fail us, and such failures can leave us vulnerable to impatient decision-making. A better alternative can be seen in another practice well known as -- the gratitude list. Reflections on all that we have to be grateful for -- this exercise may be the most effortless and effective way to inoculate ourselves against the pernicious consequences of impatience. After all, isn’t this what Christmas is all about?
So on New Year’s Eve and in toast of my New Year resolutions I will try to focus more on “gratitude” as a means of “gratification.”
If you feel pity, there's no need. And if you feel inspired, there’s still 2015 to do something about it.