The Marshmallow Mentsch

The Marshmallow Mentsch

Who is wise? He who sees the outcome of things. (The Talmud)

Part of the make-up of the mentsch is the power of self-discipline. A characteristic of our ideal human being is the ability to make decisions based not only on expected short-term satisfaction but also with a view to the long-term. Yes, it does take a degree of discipline, patience and strength of  character to be able to delay gratification today in order to make things better for tomorrow.

I am grateful to Dr Jonathan Moch who, some years back, brought to my attention a fascinating survey conducted over many years. It demonstrated quite remarkably that delaying gratification, i.e. maintaining a strong sense of self-discipline is actually the key to long term success in life. Like most interesting and exotic surveys, this one too, took place in California.  Psychologist Michael Mischel of Stanford University began the study back in the 1960’s. It was designed to monitor the EQ, or emotional intelligence, of a particular group of children. And apparently, it all came about thanks to…the marshmallow!

He offered a group of hungry 4-year olds a marshmallow. The children were told that they could, if they chose to, eat their marshmallow immediately, right then and there. Or, they could wait 20 minutes, whereupon the people distributing the marshmallows would return to the classroom and all those who had waited and saved their marshmallows would receive…another marshmallow.

The results? Well, roughly a third of the children devoured the marshmallow immediately. Some were able to wait a little longer, and about one-third were able to wait the 20 minutes for the researchers to return.

The remarkable thing about this survey was that the researchers followed the academic and social progress of that whole class over a number of years. When they graduated from high school, the differences between the two groups were dramatic. Those who resisted the urge for instant gratification turned out to be more positive, self-motivated, and persistent in the face of difficulties and better able to achieve their goals. They had either the temperament or training which resulted in more successful marriages, higher incomes, greater career satisfaction and better health habits, generally enjoying more fulfilling lives than most of the population.

Whereas those who couldn't contain themselves and swallowed their marshmallows on the spot, went through school with consistently poor results and then onto much less successful social lives, too.

It is a message that permeates life - on every level, at every stage. Getting a higher education means delaying the pleasure of having money in your pocket right after high school. The best financial investments require a long-term strategy. Your money might be tied up for a while but at the end of the day, the returns will have been well worth waiting for. Hard work at the beginning of a marriage and resisting the temptation to take the easy way out reaps lasting benefits in the years to come. Putting in time and effort into raising children is not easy in the short term, but is extremely satisfying in the long term when children grow up and become a credit to their parents rather than a disappointment.

The secret of success in life is the secret of being a mentsch - of having the wisdom, patience and self-control to exercise discipline today in order to achieve happiness and gratification tomorrow.

In the Jewish tradition there are so many examples of how we are conditioned to develop this important character trait. Children who grow up in kosher homes are instructed to be careful that even the sweets they may be offered outside the home meet the criteria of the Jewish dietary laws. Often, these children display a remarkable resilience and strong commitment to the values they were taught at home.

There are numerous instances when a child is sorely tempted to join in the fun of their friends or classmates but will rise to the challenge and decline something sweet and delicious because it isn’t kosher, or even if they are merely unsure if it is or isn’t. These children don’t feel deprived. It is part of the way they are growing up. They take it in their stride and they are certainly maturing from the experience. They are developing strong characters, becoming part of the one third of society who will succeed in life precisely because they know how to delay immediate gratification. By the way, I am sure their parents make sure to compensate them with a special treat for their efforts.

The same could be said for Shabbat or the Jewish system of marital intimacy known as Mikvah. The disciplines involved in these lifestyles build not only more spiritual personalities but men and women of calibre, of a nobler, more moral stature, people who are being nurtured in the art of being a true mentsch.

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