Sunday, 22 February 2015

The rewards of a little self-denial in Lent are extraordinary

A Stanford academic, Walter Mischel devised the ground-breaking 'marshmallow test’.  It was a very simple test. They put a young child alone in a room with a marshmallow. The child was given a choice; they could eat the marshmallow straight-away, or wait 15 minutes and be given a second marshmallow in reward for waiting. They were filmed and those kids who succeeded in waiting were given a second marshmallow.

In the decades that followed, they kept tabs on the kids.  In 2013, Walter Mischel was interviewed by Charlie Rose on his findings, notably that the kids who resisted eating the marshmallow got better marks in school, were less likely to take drugs and predictably were less likely to be obese.

Now that we are entering the season of Lent, many of us are a little bit like the kids in the experiment, willing ourselves to ‘give up’ something sweet and pleasurable for a set time.

If we’re giving up chocolate, paying for our groceries in shops that place keyboard sized bars of Cadbury’s around the tills will be a time when self-discipline is required.  Those of us who give up gin and tonics may have to go to functions and parties where the smell of juniper is heavy in the air, but doing our Lenten penance will mean saying no to the offer of a drink.

We won’t be video-taped and a team of psychologists will not be pouring over our responses.  And we’re not doing Lenten penances as some academic experiment to measure our self-mastery. Rather the Christian is doing Lenten penances with the view to being rewarded with grace and growing in holiness.


At the same time that we are trying to grow in holiness, there could also be added psychological benefits to undergoing Lenten penance. Another Stanford psychology academic Kelly McGonigal spoke on the finding that willpower is like a muscle, it gets stronger the more you use it (see seven minutes into the lecture). 

By giving up sugary snacks, beer and wine, we could very well improve our strength of will and feel good about ourselves for having stayed the course.  

I wrote this post for The Catholic Herald.  You may see a fuller list of my work by perusing my author archive

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