Hello my dear Marshmallow Peeps!
It has been a while since I wrote an editor’s letter to ETM readers, and I’m glad I waited until now because January had a lot of 2020 aftershocks, so to speak. Now it is mid-February and I feel like I’m finally ready to say something– and, if I’m really being honest here, what I have to say is as much a message to myself as it is a message to all of you.
In the past year we have endured perpetual uncertainty which has subsequently has worn us all down to nubs. The psychological consequences of being in a somewhat permanent state of stress-induced hyper-vigilance has left us all exhausted and depleted. I too am very tired.
Fatigued, we are moving into a difficult albeit hopeful phase of slowly slowly slowly shifting into a post-pandemic existence. It is a time of more uncertainty coupled with waiting for a vaccine…and then waiting and waiting to be advised as to what we can resume doing safely.
It is like the whole world is going through a giant Walter Mischel Marshmallow Test.* We are being collectively asked to sacrifice short term gratification to allow for a greater long term benefit to take hold.
A re-creation of Mischel’s Marshmallow Test
Struggling with impulse control and delayed gratification is something to which we all can relate. And on the whole, it is something we are not very good at practicing. As a matter of fact, psychologist David DeSteno recreated a type of “Marshmallow Test” designed for adults where instead of using marshmallows, his team used money– telling the test subjects they could receive $17 immediately, or wait and get $100 in a year’s time. Most people chose to take the $17, forgoing five times more money if they just waited for one year.** This flies against rational common sense and suggests that sometimes our first thoughts are not our best thoughts and they can actually undermine a longer term good. We regularly rationalize away our need to exert self-control, in part because exerting self-control is stressful in and of itself.
This is perfectly illustrated in Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie book Waiting Is Not Easy. In the book Piggie promises a surprise for Gerald the Elephant but he has to wait for it. During the very long wait, which takes up 90% of the book, we watch Gerald’s nervous system completely unravel. Page after page, he groans, pleads, and yells at Piggie. He screams, “WE HAVE WASTED THE WHOLE DAY!…And for WHAT!?” At that very moment, Piggie points up to the sky, where the sun has set, revealing the Milky Way galaxy. Gerald is awestruck and silent. After sharing a long moment together star-gazing, Gerald turns to Piggie and admits it was worth the wait.
In times of uncertainty, we can choose to replace certainty with gratitude for what we have and curiosity for what the future holds. Even though waiting isn’t easy, please, don’t eat the marshmallow just yet. Be patient, be curious about what is to come, and pay it forward. Our post-pandemic future probably won’t be what we knew, but as it reveals itself, we can help shape what it will be, and that might be worth the wait.
** Listen to the complete interview with psychologist David DeSteno on Hidden Brain: Where Gratitude Gets You