The X Factor and why instant gratification won’t make you happy

One marshmallow or two?

“And I-e-I-e-I will always love you-oo-oo-oo…”

On Saturday night, scores of wannabes will be airing their dubious singing talents to the nation for the new series of The X Factor. Each one hoping they won’t be the next Shane Ward or Steve Brookstein, although that’s probably the best that even the talented ones can hope for.

Because, on the whole, lasting success comes from a lot of hard work, determination and integrity. The Beatles gigged for five years before they had a hit.

The winning ticket

Research, backed up with brain scans carried out at Emory University in the US, has shown that, after a year, lottery winners don’t tend to be any happier than they were before their windfall. Whereas those who worked hard to achieve similar levels of wealth were found to be much more satisfied with their lot. It seems that how we gain our success makes all the difference to how much we enjoy it.

But instant fame and fortune is so alluring that we aim for it anyway, which got me thinking. What is behind our desire for instant gratification?


In 1972 Walter Mischel carried out a groundbreaking test on young children. Each child was placed in a room and a marshmallow was put on the table in front of them. The child was told that if they resisted the temptation to eat the marshmallow for 15 minutes, they would be rewarded with a second one.

As soon as the clock started ticking some of the children stuffed the marshmallow into their mouths without hesitation. Others came up with all manner of techniques for distracting themselves from the treat in front of them.

Although not a flawless match, there was found to be a distinct correlation between the child’s ability to wait for the greater gain and their success in later life.

No fear

It seems clear that rewards gained from hard work and self-discipline are more worthwhile. If you’re still not convinced, just think how good that glass of wine tastes when you’ve just got back from a long week at work.

So why don’t we live our lives to reflect this?

Results from the marshmallow experiment give us a clue. Children from all social backgrounds had similar abilities in deferring gratification. However, those from more unstable situations often made the conscious choice to eat the one marshmallow as soon as it was offered for fear that the experimenter wouldn’t keep their promise.

We are given the example of Abraham, who made a poor choice because of fear. Rather than believe God’s promise to provide him with children with his aged wife, he went for the instant gratification of a child with his servant girl.

The resultant children from each woman became the founders of two races, which, to this day, are still at war.

Our desire for instant gratification relies on fear. Rather than trust that our provider God will give us what he knows will be best for us, we grasp at the lesser riches available in the here and now. We sell ourselves short in relationships or go along with the crowd at work, because we fear the future.

But trusting in God allows us to throw off fear, because he has a good plan for our lives. So we “run with perseverance the race marked out for us”, knowing that the reward will be worth it when he welcomes us home with the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

But, just for now, I’ll buy a lottery ticket, as I’m sure God could work a little extra money into his good plan for me.

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