Patience, success, confidence and happiness: What’s up in your brain and how to improve

I've been a dad for a touch over six months now. I stay at home with the baby during the day, and then work (from home) in the evening.

If nothing else, I'm learning patience.

Which of course got me thinking about patience.

A lot of the studies in patience are about delayed gratification. Maybe the most famous experiment in delayed gratification started in the 1960s when a Stanford professor bought a bunch of marshmallows. He sat down with children (most of them four or five years old) one at a time, placed a marshmallow in front of them, and told them that if the marshmallow was still there when he came back, they could have a second marshmallow as a reward; if the child ate the marshmallow, he or she just got the one.

They then followed those kids for a couple of decades and found that those who were patient enough to get the second marshmallow went farther in life.

So, patient people are more successful. But I'm more interested in the causes of patience and how we get more of it, as opposed to what the ability to wait 15 minutes before eating a marshmallow when you're four years old means.

You remember our series on happiness a couple of months ago? In the first part of that series, we went over the chemicals in our brains associated with happiness. One was seratonin.

Christopher Bergland describes seratonin this way:

Serotonin plays so many different roles in our bodies that it is really tough to tag it. For the sake of practical application I call it “The Confidence Molecule.” Ultimately the link between higher serotonin and a lack of rejection sensitivity allows people to put themselves in situations that will bolster self-esteem, increase feelings of worthiness and create a sense of belonging.

It turns out that seratonin also regulates patience and impulsivity.

This particular study is on rats (we'll discuss a related human study, too). The usual method for measuring impulse reactions versus patient reactions goes something like this: A rat is presented with two levers. One lever releases one pellet immediately. The other releases four pellets, but after a delay.

In other words, the rat is presented with two potential rewards, but if the rat is willing to wait, the reward will be larger.

Now, if you administer to one group a selective seratonin re-uptake inhibitor (SSRI) — something like Zoloft or Lexapro, for example — you find that this group is more likely to wait for the larger reward.

In case it's not entirely clear what an SSRI does, here's a rudimentary description of what happens in a person taking, for example, sertraline (Zoloft) for anxiety: When the brain releases seratonin in a non-anxious person, you get a "normal" response, such as the confidence Bergland writes about.

In the brain of an anxious person, some of that seratonin gets re-absorbed (in an action called "re-uptake"), causing anxiety (or lack of confidence, as it were).

An SSRI blocks the re-uptake (that'd be the "inhibitor" part), so a person who would be seratonin-deficient gets a normal amount.

Presumably, rats in both the control group and the group getting the SSRI come in with a roughly equivalent baseline seratonin response (that is, they all have a normal "confidence" response to a seratonin release, without some subset facing the challenge of an anxiety-inducing re-uptake). Some seratonin is going to be lost to re-uptake, and both groups of rats would have the same amount of re-uptake occurring if it weren't for the SSRI.

When you administer the SSRI, less seratonin than normal would be re-absorbed.

It turns out that significantly more rats in the group getting the SSRI are willing to wait for the four pellets than those not receiving the drug.

In other words, the rats with more seratonin running around in their brains are more patient. We see a similar thing in mice — when seratonin production is stimulated, mice are willing to wait longer for a bigger reward (as long as they actually believe the reward will be forthcoming).

Now, you probably couldn't get a review board to approve a double-blind study like this with humans (that is, one in which the person wouldn't know whether they were being administered a drug), but we do have technology — functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) — that allows us to see things like seratonin release in the brain.

Here's that related human study I mentioned.

This time, a bunch of people were offered either $100 tomorrow or $120 at the end of the month. Some people didn't want to wait for the extra cash, and, if I explained the rat experiment well, you probably guessed that the fMRI results showed that people who elected to wait showed more seratonin was present.

The good news is, patience is trainable. Or, at least, we can un-train impatience, according to Dean Griffiths. Griffiths writes that there are two parts of the brain — the anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — that take prominent roles in patience. Both are part of the default mode network, which is still a new enough concept in neuroscience that it's not super-well defined.

Basically, if you're focusing on something, the default mode network is pretty quiet, but if you're not, well, watch out. It's that bundle of brain parts that spins and whirs and generally won't shut up when you've got nothing else to do. If you live with depression or anxiety, chances are you have a very active default mode network.

Meditation appears to do a pretty good job shutting it down.

In part three of our series on happiness, we discussed meditation as a training method for bringing about joy and training confidence, creativity and more. As Chade-Meng Tan writes in Joy on Demand, "One of the biggest surprise discoveries of my life is that self-confidence can be trained by putting my butt onto a meditation cushion" (p. 33).

More seratonin makes us happier. More seratonin makes us more patient. Patience yields success. Success presumably makes us happy. Meditation makes us happier and more patient.

I'm not saying maybe we should meditate more, but if you're wondering, I use Oak (only available for iPhone at this writing).

There are plenty of reasons to to be patient, pushing off gratification. Consider the subprime mortgage crisis in the U.S. in the first decade of the 2000s. Many people who could have qualified for "normal" mortgages instead opted for what were called "2/28" mortgages — loans with far lower than prime interest rates for the first two years that then cranked up high for the rest of the term of the loan. People figured, oh, we'll refinance before the end of those first two years, and then they didn't and wound up upside down.

Some people chalk this up to poor impulse control, the same thing that keeps us going back for seconds at the dessert table.

And if that all seems a little too personal, maybe sometimes we just need a little perspective.

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