The Difference Between Self-Discipline and Self-Denial
Why some of us can’t bear to use the beautiful things we own
I just learned the word “anhedonia.” It means the inability to experience pleasure. Writers have been using the term a lot recently (15,700 results came up when I searched for it in Google News) to describe one of Covid’s long term effects on mental health. Over the weekend, I came across anhedonia in a New York Times article, which linked it to another good vocab word: anosmia, or the loss of smell.
Smell is intimately tied to both taste and appetite, and anosmia often robs people of the pleasure of eating. But the sudden absence also may have a profound impact on mood and quality of life. Studies have linked anosmia to social isolation and anhedonia, an inability to feel pleasure, as well as a strange sense of detachment and isolation.
I definitely don’t have anhedonia. But the word has led me to mull over a related attribute that I’d always considered a strength: The ability to delay pleasure or gratification. Let’s call it self-discipline. You’re likely familiar with the Marshmallow Test, the 1972 psychological experiment by psychologist Walter Mischel, which measured how long preschoolers could keep from scarfing down marshmallows placed in front of them, as explained in this Elemental article:
There have been several variations of the study performed over the years, including the most famous example of waiting for two marshmallows or settling for one. All of the variations assume the same basic premise: The longer children resist before ringing the bell, the stronger their ability to delay gratification in order to gain a larger reward in the future — arguably whether it’s minutes or years later.
In recent years, there’s been criticism over Mischel’s conclusion that a child’s self-discipline can predict their future success. But most of us can still agree with the gist of the idea: Delaying short-term gratification so you can achieve longer-term goals is a good thing. That’s the essence of maturity, right? And I am really good at it as an adult. Tell me I need to go hours, even days, without eating, sleeping, or relaxing to get a project done? No problem. I built up this capacity…