Building Patience

There’s this lovely study where young children are presented with a marshmallow and told that, if they can be patient and wait a while, instead of one, they can have two marshmallows. Some kids stare longingly at the treat, covering their eyes, even squishing the marshmallow a bit until the time is up, others barely wait until the researchers leave the room before downing it.

As grownups though, we understand long term rewards more thoroughly: if I keep money back from my salary, I’ll have savings for tax season; if I eat salad today, I won’t feel terrible about dinner out tomorrow. Especially in the abstract, we are usually pretty good at mapping - giving up the small indulgence for the larger one. When it gets interesting is when it comes to other people and our understanding of their lives.

When it is our turn to mow the lawn or pick up dog food, we have likely planned when we’ll be prepared to sweat outside, or when we’ll be near the pet store: we’re not putting off the activity, we’ve probably just thought through when the chore fits best with what we’ve already got going on. To an outsider though, when the grass starts getting seed-heads, or our furry companion won’t eat without that store run, their patience is probably tested.

Subsequent studies have reported correlations between being a patient person and higher SAT scores, bigger salaries, even stronger marriages and smarter children. So how do we build patience?

  • Understand that tasks that are little to you, might be a big deal to someone else

  • And backwards: things that seem really important to you, might be blips on the radar for others

  • Practice being patient when the reward is high: it’s more difficult to feel patient when you’re doing a mundane task, but when others can witness your patience – say training your puppy over several days to ‘beg’ for a treat, likely, your patience will be lauded

  • Be aware of the physical signs of impatience: shallow breaths, fidgeting, tense muscles…when you try to relax your body and slow your breathing, it’s almost impossible to also be impatient

  • Take a hard look at something that frequently drives you crazy: can you modify your actions or expectations to reduce the annoying situation? That traffic on the highway tests your patience, is there another route that has fewer cars?

Patience is one of those attributes people notice the lack of in others; but even if no one recognizes how thoughtful you are when they’re 20 minutes late to the movies or appreciates your calm demeanor when a vacation gets postponed, it might be worth working towards for your own peace of mind.

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