It was a big theme when I was a kid, this annual 40 days of deprivation, with a break out on Patrick’s Day when the rules were bent and you could spend your grubby money on chocolate.
After that reprieve, you had Easter Sunday to look forward to, when you could gorge on chocolate eggs with impunity, marking the end of Lent.
These days, we’re more pragmatic than in thrall to church rules. We give up alcohol and chocolate to lose weight rather than trying to channel Jesus and his 40 days in the desert. We don’t like the word ‘sacrifice’ as it has grim church associations.
But there’s no harm at all in making a sacrifice. However, I draw the line at dragging kids out of bed early in the morning to go to Mass. I was that victim, forced to attend Mass every day throughout Lent, going to the church on an empty stomach so that I could receive Communion.
Character building? More like ammunition to despise the church and its joylessness.
But that’s not to dismiss Lent. It’s all about delayed gratification - a good thing, despite our propensity to live for the moment; to eat, drink and make merry as if the world could end tomorrow. (And with Russia attacking Ukraine and Vladimir Putin harbouring evil thoughts about other parts of the world, it’s not too much of a stretch to fear the end of days.)
Austrian-born American psychologist Walter Mischel carried out an experiment in 1975 with four-year- olds that resulted in a famous symbol regarding self-control.
While Mischel didn’t want to be known as the Marshmallow Man, the tag stuck as his study produced one of the most central findings in social psychology in the 20th century.
Mischel and his colleagues went to a pre-school and put a marshmallow in front of each child. The deal was that they could eat it right away, but if they wanted to wait for the experimenter to come back a little bit later, they could have two marshmallows.
The children who were able to wait ended up doing much better in life. They performed well at school and were less likely to use drugs and get into trouble. They had high scores at college, their mental health was better than those who were into immediate gratification - and they were happier.
Well, being self-disciplined, as everyone knows, is a source of satisfaction. If spontaneity is your preferred modus operandi, you might do something foolish like go on the tear in the middle of the afternoon, only to wake up the following day with a hangover and the need to catch up on work.
The self-disciplined person feels more in control of their life.
Happily, Mischel didn’t believe that the ability to delay gratification is a quality that you either have or don’t have. He said his favourite participants in the marshmallow study were the kids who initially didn’t wait. However, they learned to defer pleasure and ended up doing just as well in life as the kids who had no problem waiting and earning a second marshmallow.
However, the study wasn’t entirely straightforward. The kids had to trust that the experimenter would return later as promised. The kids that were from stable families with a higher socio-economic status had no problem trusting.
Mischel’s initial marshmallow study was carried out in the Caribbean. He realised early on that he was getting false results. This was because some of the kids who weren’t waiting were not incapable of self-control. But they had absent fathers and that resulted in trust being a huge factor.
So Mischel and his researchers made sure to control for that. They spent weeks establishing trust with the kids so that would not be a confounding factor.
Did you hear about the boy and the Oreo cookies?
He was seen (without his knowledge) looking around and then opening the packet of cookies and licking the cream around the centre of them. He put the cookies back into the packet and looked totally innocent as if he hadn’t touched anything.
Mischel loved to show people the video of this youngster with the Oreos. He would say that this boy was going to grow up to be a politician!
This Lent, give your sugar/booze intake a break. Self-discipline is its own reward.