Gimme, gimme! Faster, easier world is turning us into ‘instant’ addicts

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How are you doing with your New Year’s resolutions?

You say your exercise program is perilously close to a hiatus? Your pledge to not run up your credit cards lasted until the January sales? Your promise to cut back on pizza, bread and ice cream went pffft?

There’s a reason all these good intentions have gone astray: Like the rest of us, you wanted fast results, and you weren’t getting them.

So when it comes to downing some creamy Cherry Garcia today or having a trimmer waist next month, we’ll take the pleasure now.

The possible, positive results of our well-meaning plans are too iffy, too far away. We like quick fixes and definite results. That’s the kind of thing that makes a gastric bypass one of the fastest-growing types of surgery.

As with most things worth having in life, we can’t get results – Snap! – just like that. And that is so inconsistent with what else is going on in our world. Because just about everything else, we can get fast.

E-mail and text messages? Instantly. Buying something online after you’ve seen it in Lucky? Takes minutes. A new book on Amazon? You’ve got 1-Click. Bidding on eBay? You’ll “buy it now” even if it costs way more.

In short, we can get what we want pretty much 24 hours a day, whether we have the money or calories to spare. Before we have time to think about it, we eat it or buy it – and so we get fatter, more in debt or both.

There’s an uglier flip side, too, when the world isn’t going our way. When traffic isn’t moving, when someone isn’t reachable by cell phone, when the computer program is downloading excruciatingly slowly, when weather cancels our flight, we become incensed – no, enraged.

Sometimes to a degree that’s deadly for us, or those we encounter.

The price our culture pays for this consuming need for quick gratification?

“Rampant selfishness and speed as a value, rather than quality or commitment,” says Richard Boyatzis, a professor in organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management who co-authored the book “Primal Leadership: The Hidden Driver of Great Performance.”

The Internet generation’s worldwide connections make this more than a purely American phenomenon, he says.

And the result is the same in any culture: “What you get is speed and impatience with others, which comes across as selfish and inconsiderate. We don’t take time to consider others’ feelings, or longer-term consequences.”

Psychologist Robert Chwast of Westlake, Ohio, sees how this need for speed manifests, personally and professionally.

He likes to play backgammon online, and every player gets one full minute to make a move. But other players start flaming him if he hasn’t made a move in five seconds.

Then there are his patients. “I work with people who want their problem fixed yesterday, when it’s taken a whole lifetime to develop,” he says. “There’s a sense of urgency, and the self-centeredness that attends it has become endemic to our culture.”

It’s a hard way to live, wanting everything fast, and it’s getting harder – for us and even more so for our children. It’s not just an issue in the United States, of course, but in most cultures.

John Toomey is a Los Angeles-based producer who reviews short Internet videos for the Crystal Awards, a contest for video shorts. He’s examined YouTube-like entries from all over the world.

“To me, these have been a window on what’s going on in the minds of young people. I can tell you that, based on submissions from dozens of countries, instant gratification is as much of a problem in other countries as in North America.”

From the content, and from his dealings with those submitting, he says he’s seen that “people want pleasure now, they want money now, they want fame now – they make clear they want to achieve success very quickly.”

“I’m sorry to say that China, India and Japan, countries with long-standing spiritual and philosophical traditions, seem to be catching up to the West in this regard.”

Writing for the Alliance for Childhood, Australian psychiatrist Marilyn B. Benoit points out that too often, children today are taught that “whatever they want, they can have, without actually having to wait for it, to earn it, create it or to find an alternative if it’s not available.”

Technology has made it worse, she adds. While as a child she would savor the anticipation of waiting a month for a letter from a pen pal, today’s children get a quick e-mail response.

The result of all this immediacy is what she calls “poor frustration tolerance” by children who don’t get what they want quickly.

“We must be mindful of the potential long-term negative impacts upon the psychological and social development of our children,” Benoit writes.

As author and advice columnist April Masini (www.AskApril.com) says, “There’s a direct link between instant gratification and impulsiveness. People who are impulsive do not take time to look at the whole picture, and they often do not make wise decisions.”

Evelyn Theiss is a staff writer for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland. She can be contacted at etheiss@plaind.com.

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