Delayed gratification is associated with better long-term outcomes for individuals. Time spent in prayer and other religious rituals are means by which individuals delay the gratification of enjoying worldly experiences and they are an investment in the gratification of rewards to be gained in the afterlife. Moreover time spent in these activities changes what counts as gratification for participants.
How delayed gratification works
One of the ideas that helps explain the economic outperformance of some social and ethnic groups is their ability to practice ‘delayed gratification’. The term accurately sums up the idea of ‘delaying the experience of happiness’.
This seems counterintuitive, why delay what you could have right now? Surely there is some loss involved in putting off gratification, you may not be around to enjoy it and there could be other uncertainties as well.
The notion of delayed gratification assumes that if we put off the experience of happiness when we do receive it, the experience will be greater and longer lasting than if we had sought to experience the happiness earlier on.
Why is this the case? The most obvious example is the delayed gratification occasioned by spending time as a school pupil studying in order to get better grades while that time could have been spent playing or watching television. Later on it’s the same studious group who are at university living in relative penury, while their peers are earning and spending money.
However, most studies show that although graduates start earning later than non-graduates, once they do so their lifetime earnings are much higher than non-graduates. And it’s not just income, there are a number of other measures such as health going in the same direction.
The cookie experiment
All this goes back to the experiments conducted by Walter Mischel in 1970, who offered kids a cookie which they could eat immediately or they could have two if they waited till he came back from an errand. The high delay kids, who waited for the second cookie, did better at school and achieved various other positive life outcomes that the low delay kids did not.
I’d go on to argue that the process of delaying can change an individual. The kids who are willing to wait for the second cookie will likely prefer the low fat, low sugar offering compared to the tasty version.
I think this is because when the high delay kids are provided with information about harms and benefits they're better able to make the right choices. As they come across more information these people change what they consider constitutes happiness. This second order effect is important, because it has a qualitative impact not only on lifestyles and employment opportunities of these individuals but also the thought processes of the children of the high delay kids. High delay can be taught and learned.
So delaying gratification enables the acquisition of quantitatively more happiness, and qualitatively more sustainable happiness.
Up to this point our discussion has been in terms of purely material gains or losses. You do not have to be a believer in any religion to understand the foregoing argument, there are ample studies involving experiments (often with marshmallows) to back up the idea.
The question then, is whether the same principles can be applied in a religious context?
The theist argument would likely be that religious practice such as prayer, the acquisition of religious knowledge and spiritual experience are all activities that take place at the expense of acquiring immediate material happiness, will likely have a higher pay-off in any after-life.
However, anyone can understand the cause and effect relationship between, for example, the higher pay-offs associated with education and delayed gratification, because there is ample proof for this. But no one has come back from any after life, so is it the case that all we have to go on is faith?
I don’t think so.
One of the ways by which people can improve their self-discipline to improve their ability to delay gratification is to undertake some other task that takes their mind away from whatever gratification they are seeking to delay.
That’s what the religious activities do. They train us to exercise restraint. They are the wait for the second cookie. If we see prayer and duas etc. as taking time away from the joys of worldly activities, that’s because they are supposed to.
I also think the second order effects that I talked about regarding the impact of education on gratification also have a parallel with religion.
Time spent on worship and spiritual activities, I think changes what people consider appropriate sources of gratification. They actually change what we do in this life, we consider whether the ingredients of the cookie are halal or haram.
The Muslims who avoid weed cookies don’t need to rely on faith to understand the benefits of delayed gratification, they can see it for themselves.