Understanding Gratification


Some people never seem to understand gratification, or if they do, they ignore the principle. The laws of gratification became apparent to me at a very early age. I was perhaps 4 or 5 years old when my brother and I would ride to the grocery store with my mother. As a treat, she would give each of us a dime to spend as we pleased. At the time, one of my favorite treats was an ice cream sandwich that consisted of vanilla ice cream between two chocolate wafers. My older brother told me he was going to save his dimes for a toy he wanted. I wanted that toy too but I also wanted the ice cream sandwich. So, this was my first encounter with the laws of gratification; that is, should I enjoy the immediate gratification of the ice cream sandwich or do I exchange the present gratification for a future benefit that I might enjoy even more.


I weighed the rewards in my mind—sandwich now, toy later—and then I made my choice. I chose the sandwich, which means I also chose to give up the long-term gratification of getting a toy. A few weeks later, my brother had enough dimes to purchase his toy. Although I also wanted the same toy and thought about whining to my mother about it, I felt there was something wrong about whining when I knew all along that I would have to give up the toy if I chose the ice cream sandwich.


Immediate gratification is not always wrong, and there was nothing wrong with me choosing the ice cream sandwich over the toy. I actually wanted the toy more than the sandwich but I did not want it enough to wait for it, which means that waiting made the toy less valuable to me. The point is not that we choose immediate gratification, but that we recognize what the choice entails. If we think about it, the cost of forfeiting a future benefit may become more important to us than the immediate gratification we desire now. As long as we are making a rational choice, we always know what to do that is our own best interest.


Some may think the mental processes of a child are not great enough to make these kinds of calculations, but I remember clearly what was going through my mind at the time. Perhaps we make gratification more complex than it really is by looking for the cause of addiction in brainwaves, genes, parents, society, disease, and environment. What we are talking about is not really complicated.


The point is this: immediate gratification usually entails the forfeiture of a long-term gratification. Gratification itself, whether short-term or long-term, is neither good nor bad. Some gratification, however, may not be in our own best interest, and for those who are religious, it may even be sinful. The key is to get people to become more spiritual when they consider gratification; that is, they should try to stand outside of themselves and take a more objective look at their decisions and choices.


This reminds me of the time my youngest son graduated from high school. I explained to my son that he now had two choices before him regarding his future. Should he go to college or should he get a full-time job and begin a career? I emphasized that it was his decision to make and that I would love him regardless of what decision he made. I explained that although many young people do not go to college and still succeed in life, there are some advantages in getting a college degree. I also explained that there would be some short-term and long-term gratification issues he would have to sort through in making this decision. On the one hand, if he got a job now, he could start enjoying the benefits of having a regular income. He would be in a position to live independently from his parents and buy a nice vehicle to drive. On the other hand, if he went to college, he must endure four years of hard work and self-denial, but in the end he would have a college degree that would stay with him for the rest of his life. In addition, his choice of a major field of study was also based on the laws of gratification.


He chose to major in computer science rather than some other field of study that he might also enjoy. Computer science was a difficult field of study and there were no guarantees he would even be able to complete it. Jared had many interests and he could have studied many other things that would have been easier for him than computer science, but he chose computer science because of his long-term goal of having a skill that would be both practical and marketable in the present age. So, after four years of hard work and self-denial, he was able to graduate with a degree in computer science and now has a professional job in his field of study.


The laws of gratification are crucial in understanding why some people choose addiction and others do not. The problem with addiction is that people tend to have a worldly focus rather than a spiritual focus (see chapter 2), and their focus is always fixed on the present with little or no thought for the future. With a worldly focus, people neglect to consider the long-term damaging aspects of their behaviors.


In Scripture, the laws of gratification can be compared to God’s law of harvest, which is, “A man reaps what he sows” (Galatians 6:7). The law of harvest also includes the promise of a long-term benefit, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (v. 9). The problem with addicts is that they want to reap the harvest of gratification now rather than later. This mindset is the result of a long history of decision-making based on a worldly focus. The longer people follow this course in life the more difficult it is for them to stop their addiction.


So, how do you help someone change from a worldly focus to a spiritual focus? How do you help them get out of the rut of addiction? If they are open to receiving help, suggest that they try to find a substitute gratification for the one that is causing problems. It is unlikely they will find a substitute that is as gratifying as what they are now experiencing, but the idea is to help them transition away from a harmful behavior by replacing it with one that is less harmful.


Second, practice harm reduction. For example, nicotine addicts may try to find a less harmful way to ingest the drug other than by smoking, or they can reduce the number of cigarettes smoked in a given time period.


Third, use cognitive restructuring (see chapter 5) to help people change their beliefs about their addictive behaviors. They must recognize that the long-term negative consequences of addiction are more harmful than the benefits of the immediate gratification. It is surprising how many people never really do a cognitive appraisal and count the cost of addiction. It is like the problem gambler who only remembers the wins and not the losses or fails to understand the laws of probability. However, when people discover that addiction is not in their own best interest, they often find the motivation to stop.


Fourth, reframe the benefits of addiction in negative ways. This requires monitoring your self-talk. When you say to yourself, “Boy, I sure would like to drink/gamble/smoke,” respond by saying, “I know what this will do to me and it is not good.”


Finally, there is a certain satisfaction in waiting to receive a long-term gratification, as in the saying, “wanting is half of having.” Waiting all week to go to a nice restaurant makes the actual experience more gratifying. There can actually be pleasure in denying yourself an immediate gratification if you know it leads to a more important gratification later.


If it is as simple as is suggested above, then why do people not stop their addictions? It is not that they are unable to, but the pain of quitting and the sudden loss of gratification is something they do not want to experience. This creates a significant resistance to change even though they may be aware that in the long-term it is in their own best interest to stop their present behavior. Another problem is that many people cannot find a substitute gratification that helps them transition from drugs, alcohol, or gambling. Finally, while most people value long-term gratification, addicts often do not.


J B Myers



Faith and Addiction

Elders and Deacons

Life Choices 

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