What Was the "Marshmallow Study"?
In the early 1970's at Stanford University, psychologist Walter Mischel created a simple test: place a four, five, or six-year old in a room with a marshmallow and tell him he'd receive another marshmallow if he didn't eat the one until Dr. Mischel returned 15 minutes later. Recently, Dr. David Walsh reproduced this experiment for a news program, and Joachim de Posada did the same in Colombia. The videos are quite funny and can be seen here:
What the Marshmallow Study Tells Us About Success
As Dr. Walsh says, the true genius of the study was to follow up on the kids once they reached their early 20's to determine if there was any correlation between their ability to defer the immediate gratification of eating one marshmallow in order to get two, and their future success. The results of the experiment clearly showed a link. The children who were able to defer or delay their desires to obtain an even greater reward ended up being far more successful than those who were not able, with only a few exceptions on each side.
This makes sense logically. If someone is constantly seeking his or her own gratification and pleasure, how can that person make any progress toward a goal, especially if achieving that goal involves unpleasant circumstances, hard work, or difficult tasks?
The Marshmallow Study and the Spiritual Life
The Marshmallow Study therefore reveals what is actually a spiritual principle and truth about the virtue of fortitude. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1808, fortitude "strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life." As the Marshmallow Study showed, those who learn at an early age to defer their own pleasure in order to achieve a greater good are later able to apply that ability to the challenges of the adult life, and by extension, the spiritual life.
Keep in mind, our society is not geared toward learning to defer gratification. In fact, our society says very emphatically, "Eat the marshmallow! Eat it NOW! Don't wait! You deserve the marshmallow! Who knows if you'll even be around in 15 minutes! Doesn't the marshmallow look delicious? Everyone else is eating their marshmallow . . . you should eat yours now, too!"
As parents and teachers, it's our job to train our children and students in the virtue of fortitude; to help them become strong in the face of temptation and able to resist the many messages of our consumeristic, materialistic society. It starts small: by building the ability to put off television in favor of studying, or play time in favor of multiplication tables, for instance. As children grow into their teen years, however, the stakes get higher, and the potential either for gain or loss becomes greater.
Prayer is our first, best resource to assist our children/students. However, since "the moral virtues are acquired by human effort" (CCC, #1804), young people can be guided through each situation with an eye toward their own spiritual development. With gentle, age-appropriate reminders like, "By finishing your chores before you play video games, you're learning how to be stronger than your desires. In your life, you're going to need that kind of strength!"
Let's raise spiritual heroes who possess the virtue of fortitude, not spiritual marshmallows!