“The worst recession in three quarters of a century should have led us to rethink an economic model based on automatic upgrades and short-term gains. Instead, we’ve continued to focus our economic energies, entrepreneurial talents, and innovation on getting the biggest returns in the shortest time possible. Worse, we’ve done so even though fewer and fewer of us can afford to keep up with the Sisyphean pursuit of ever-faster gratification—a frustration expressed in the angry populism now paralyzing our politics. From top to bottom, we are becoming a society ruled by impulse, by the reflexive reach for quick rewards. We are becoming an Impulse Society.”
—Paul Roberts, author of The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification
As we continue our exploration of the timeless “seven deadly sins” from a perspective of business ethics, we move on to the sin of gluttony. As I did with the topic of lust last week, for our purpose here, I’m going to pivot away from the outward human tendency that the sin represents (in this case, the over-indulgence of food and/or drink), and dive a little deeper into the dynamics that might drive any of us to over-indulge in food, or many other earthly pleasures: that is our human tendency toward instant gratification.
And if you check out the essay, “Instant Gratification” from which the above quote was borrowed, you will discover that this phenomenon permeates every level of American business and society. In fact, this problem is so huge, I struggled to settle on a focal point for this piece. That said, I thought I would highlight one manifestation of instant gratification that most of us can at least relate to, if not struggle with ourselves: our infatuations with our smart phones.
This past weekend my son and I went to a movie. Before the show started, the theater chain runs its own branded intro clips, one of which is the now-oh-so-common “silence your phone” request (often sponsored by a major wireless carrier). This one was different, however. It was telling the audience to look away from the “tiny screen” in their pockets calling out to them, and instead focus on the “big screen” in front. What caught my attention was how the imagery nailed it: endless faces of people, young and old, staring blankly into the glowing majesty of their smart phones, completely oblivious of the surroundings and people around them.
The smart phone addiction that has permeated Western culture is a great symptom of rampant instant gratification. Visit any restaurant, coffee shop, or bar, and you will find countless individuals–even in groups–all staring endlessly into their smart phones. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say I was in the middle of a bad John Carpenter covert alien-invasion film. But no, this is real life. And it seems to have hit people at every level of the socio-economic pyramid: all people, all ages, both genders, all backgrounds. No one is immune.
Does this include you? I’ll confess–there are plenty of times when I’m guilty of being seduced by my mobile device. I try to be mindful of it, and am very intentional about keeping it out of reach when it is important for my attention to be elsewhere (most often when I’m engaging with other people).
But why are we so ruled by impulse, as Roberts explains above? Why is this?
“Humans, it’s safe to say, were not designed for a world of such easy gratification,” Robert continues. “Decades of research suggest that our brains, adapted for a prehistoric world of scarce resources and infrequent opportunities, are wired to prioritize immediate rewards and costs and to disregard rewards and costs that occur in the future. This natural bias against the future, so essential for our ancestors, is an Achilles’ heel in a modern economy built around immediate pleasure and deferred pain.”
So, Roberts is essentially saying that it’s our wiring. It’s the same genetic programming that permitted our ancestors to survive famines, but today makes many of us overweight. And as Roberts points out in his examples of how instant gratification has also manifested itself in corporate America over the past forty years, one can easily see how far too many of us live out our lives, and often our businesses, on chasing the reward found at the end of the day, or the week, or the quarter.
And many of us have become addicted; slaves to impulse. Further, it has helped foster a culture of narcissism. So many of us have become the gods of our own universes, we truly become oblivious to the people around us.
If you think this statement is too bold, ask yourself this question: have you ever, in the presence of another person (be them an acquaintance, spouse, or anyone in-between) given more attention and respect to your mobile device than to them? Is it just possible that you may have made another person feel less important?
If you do show signs of smart phone addiction (and most of us with smart phones do, myself included), recognize your giving in to instant gratification. Be intentional about not using it at certain times of the day, or in certain circumstances.
This presents a great opportunity to exercise the skill of discipline and delayed gratification, and in turn, begin to apply that skill to other areas of your life.