How to Be More Patient Every Day
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, this character trait is on the decline—patience is practically on the endangered species list as far as virtues go. With entire TV series available at once on streaming services and burning questions resolved in seconds via search engine, we clearly live in an era of hyperconnectivity. Among its negative effects: "a need for instant gratification and a loss of patience," according to a 2012 report by the Pew Research Center. Another 2012 study conducted by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst 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. And that was a decade ago. And our ability to wait isn't much better in other areas of our lives. Just sit in a traffic jam for a few minutes and count how many honking horns you hear. (One survey conducted by One Poll on 2,000 British adults in 2019 found that the average respondent gets irritated if the traffic lights don't change after 25 seconds.)
Having Patience Benefits Your Life and Health
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, PhD, 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.
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, RN, a registered nurse and the author of the parenting book Is That Me Yelling?. "Patience enables you to work collaboratively, have good relationships with others, and move toward goals."
Are we born with patience, or is it learned?
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 (i.e., 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, MD, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles and the author of The Power of Surrender. "You get pushy and think 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, adds 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, Dr. Orloff says. As for children, they "learn by what they see rather than by what you say," Renner says, 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," Renner says. In fact, with a little know-how and effort, everyone can learn to wait out delays, big and small.
How to Cultivate Patience
"Many people speak about patience as if it were some sort of commodity," says Allan Lokos, founder of the Community Meditation Center, in New York City, and author of Patience: The Art of Peaceful Living. "We say, 'I'm running out of patience' or 'I'm losing my patience.' But that's not really accurate. Patience and impatience are feelings." In other words, you don't start the day with a full tank that's steadily depleted until you're running on patience fumes. Instead, the trait is a mixture of "persistence, acceptance, and calmness," says M.J. Ryan, an executive coach and the author of The Power of Patience. "When people with these three qualities find that something isn't going their way, they can keep on keeping on."
How do you get that magic mix if you weren't born with it? By adjusting your wiring. "The brain is constantly being refined by our experiences," Casey says. "If you train yourself to regulate your behavior and work on cooling off before responding, you can actually alter your brain circuitry." Here are some strategies to help you do that.
How to Calm Down When You Get Impatient
You can't turn into a different person overnight or even over a year. But while you're working on things, you can employ strategies to avoid blowing your top.