How to Have Patience Every Day

In a world of instant gratification, patience is a lost art. But can you develop a muscle for it? And is there any hope for your kids? Hold your horses—it’s all here.

  • Ingela Ratledge

Remember when getting directions to Grandma’s required actually talking to Grandma? No matter how long that took? And how about when new shoes required a trip to the mall instead of a click of a mouse (with free two-day shipping)? Sure, tasks and errands were more time-consuming back then, but they also carried a silver lining: They helped to cultivate patience. For obvious reasons, the character trait is on the decline. (Face it: Patience is on the endangered species list as far as virtues go.) With entire seasons of TV shows available at once on Netflix and burning questions resolved in seconds, thanks to ever present smartphones, Americans have entered an era of hyperconnectivity, according to a 2012 report by the Pew Research Center. Among its negative effects: “a need for instant gratification and a loss of patience,” notes the report. A study conducted by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 2012 found that roughly a quarter of Internet users abandon an online video if it takes more than five seconds to load, and half jump ship after 10 seconds. Our ability to wait isn’t much better in other segments of our lives. Just sit in a traffic jam for a few minutes and count how many honking horns you hear.

Why Patience Matters

Other than keeping you from huffing like a gorilla when the office elevator stops at every floor? Mastering patience—and showing self-control, a quality that’s in the same immediate family—makes you a more engaged, confident, and even healthier member of society. A 2004 study published in The Journal of Personality found that the capacity to exercise self-control correlates with high self-esteem, better grades, and better interpersonal skills.

Consider the often cited Stanford “marshmallow experiment,” which psychologist Walter Mischel first conducted about 40 years ago. In the experiment, 4-year-olds were offered one marshmallow (or another similarly alluring treat) immediately or two if they could wait about 25 minutes for the researchers to come back into the room. When the original participants were revisited recently, scientists discovered that those who had been able to put off gratification in favor of a superior reward as 4-year-olds had grown up to be more patient adults. “They also had higher SAT scores, lower body mass indexes, and a slightly lower divorce rate,” says BJ Casey, Ph.D., the director of the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University, in New York City, and one of the authors of the follow-up study of the experiment. (For more on it, see “I Was a Child Science Experiment.”)

What’s more, people who are patient are, to put it bluntly, more likable. They’re better at waiting their turn, not interrupting while others are talking, and not making a scene at the DMV. In short, “they’re easier to be with,” says Rona Renner, a registered nurse and the author of the parenting book Is That Me Yelling? ($17, amazon.com). “Patience enables you to work collaboratively, have good relationships with others, and move toward goals.”

Born vs. Bred

In adults and children, the development of patience involves both nature and nurture. The biological roots of impatience include an overcharged fight-or-flight reflex, which kicks in as a survival mechanism during stressful situations (you know, when you’re running 10 minutes late); anxiety or depression; and feelings of superiority or entitlement. “This is the sense that you should be able to go ahead of someone or that your needs should be put first in any situation,” says Judith Orloff, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles and the author of The Ecstasy of Surrender ($26, amazon.com). “You get pushy and think that you have more rights than others.” For children, who can seem like the least patient species on the planet, brain development also plays a role. “The prefrontal circuitry of the brain, which is involved in self-regulation, is still developing into our 20s,” and this contributes to children’s and teenagers’ being more impulsive, says Casey.

The nurture component is key, too. For example, an overflow of obligations leaves many adults “overwhelmed and overcommitted and feeling as if they don’t have enough time to do everything,” which makes them less likely to handle delays with a smile, says Orloff. As for children, they “learn by what they see rather than by what you say,” says Renner, so if you have a short fuse, your kids might, too. One of the best ways to raise a kid who will wait for that second marshmallow is to become good at waiting yourself. “Some children are more naturally patient, but patience is something that you absolutely can cultivate,” says Renner. In fact, with a little know-how and effort, everyone in your family can learn to wait out delays, big and small.