Question: What do marshmallows and the four Noble Truths have in common?

Answer: craving.

Upon observing his children, psychologist Walter Mischel became curious about delayed gratification. He observed this capacity to appear around the age of four.

In a clever experiment, he placed children of various ages in a plain room with a table and chair. Upon this table, lay one marshmallow. Children were offered a choice: either take the one marshmallow or wait and receive two (anyone who is a parent can see where this is going!). Mischel did find that the ability to hold off from the one to receive the two did appear around age four. And he also observed a wide variation – from children who could not wait a mere seconds up to a champion gratification-delayer who waited an astounding twenty minutes!

But this was not the most fascinating aspect of the study. Years later, when asking his children about how their classmates were faring (the children in the previous study attended that same school as Mischel’s children), he stumbled upon an amazing discovery. The children who could make it to the second marshmallow were doing much better in school than those that could not wait. Fascinated, Mischel began to track several performance factors of these children. Now in the forties, the children that could delay gratification had scored over 200 points higher on SATs, had higher-paying jobs and had healthier body weights, just to name a few of the factors.

Mischel suggests that the simple act of delaying gratification may go far beyond just a few minutes with a marshmallow to many other life challenges. What separated the delayers from the dive-right-iners? The children who successfully could wait for the two marshmallows all employed some sort of strategy: kicking the table, telling a story that the marshmallow was a cloud, turning their backs upon the item of want. Was this innate or could it be learned? Mischel found that the children who previously ate the first marshmallow could be successful once taught a delay strategy.

So, what does this have to do with the Four Noble Truths? In a nutshell, the four noble truths reveal, that due to having bodies, we will have sensory experiences that will result in craving and attachment. That is the bad news. The good news, we can learn how to be free from the pull of craving. While Mischel’s marshmallow children used common strategies of distraction and denial, mindfulness meditation offers us a far more powerful strategy. By developing my capacity to observe my cravings, in all three realms of body, mind and emotions, I also develop the capacity to be liberated from having to act upon these cravings. This in no way limits my enjoyment when I do have a sensory experience, but allows me to choose the time and place when I indulge versus delay. Mindfulness offers me the opportunity to have my cake and eat it too, just maybe a little later after I have made it to the gym and home to have vegetables and whole grains first!

Radio Lab: Mischel’s Marshmallows

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