When Is Waiting Worth It?


By Yvonne Milosevic

“Patience attracts happiness; it brings near that which is far.”—Swahili proverb.

Since long before that famous “marshmallow test” (now debunked, by the way), we’ve heard that patience is a virtue and that good things come to those who wait. Yet biding our time isn’t always easy. In the age of instant gratification, even waiting an extra second for a website to load feels exasperating.

But there are times when we’re willing to wait without complaint. Chicago Booth professor Ayelet Fishbach wanted to find out under what circumstances people choose to forego immediate gratification and wait for something better. First, Fishbach posed this question to tech aficionados:

If you’re considering upgrading your phone, would you go for the very nice model that’s out now or wait for the higher-tech option coming out in a few months? 

Joined by Booth Ph.D. student Annabelle R. Roberts and UCLA’s Franklin Shaddy, Fishbach soon learned the answer. When it comes to tech, the wait is worth it. In fact, across a series of studies using various products, the researchers found that liking an item more makes people more willing to wait for it. They also found people were more willing to wait to get a larger quantity of certain things. This phenomenon seems driven by whatever subjective value participants placed on the object in question, the researchers note. 

“People are patient when they believe the larger-later reward is worth waiting for,” says Fishbach. “So, whether it’s fashion, coffee, or your savings account, when you like something, there’s a big difference between the inferior and the superior versions of it.” 


Other benefits of waiting

Learning to wait with grace can help you do more than cool your heels until the iPhone 13 comes out. You can build up your patience by reminding yourself why the item or outcome is essential and worth waiting for. Added bonus: Taking a patient approach to your career helps you set and achieve strategic goals. You can use it when building relationships and facing new challenges. Cultivating patience will also give you the endurance to learn new, complex skills.

But Don’t Wait Too Long

As much as we revere the patience virtue, other researchers think we shouldn’t take delayed gratification to the extreme. If we wait too long to enjoy something special, we actually enjoy it less because it doesn’t live up to our expectations, say UCLA Anderson’s Suzanne B. Shu and UPenn’s Marissa Sharif. 

Meanwhile, UCLA Anderson’s Paola Giuliano and Northwestern’s Paola Sapienza have found that patience has its limits where happiness is concerned.

After studying data collected from 70,000 people in 70 countries, they discovered that “being the epitome of patience does not translate into being happier.”

Across nine different happiness measures, the happiest individuals tended to be moderately patient and not gluttons for delayed gratification. “A moderate amount of patience appears to be associated with a higher level of life satisfaction and emotional well-being,” Giuliano and Sapienza write.

Guess this means we all need to aim for that “Goldilocks sweet spot” where waiting patiently is concerned.