You Can Trick Your Brain Into Being More Patient — Here’s How

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Having patience isn't very sexy. And it isn't quite as talked about as having impatience: complaining about waiting at a red light, or being stuck in a giant line that just won't move, is far more common than commenting on pleasant it was to wait... and wait... and wait. But the ability to put up with a bit of discomfort now in exchange for a future reward is not only helpful in the now — it can also be a rewarding psychological trait. If you're someone whose blood boils over the second you have to wait for something, though, there's good news: you can develop more patience by tricking your brain.

One of the most famous studies on impulse control was recently called under scrutiny, and it could impact what we understand about patience. The marshmallow test, as it's known, tested whether children who were given a marshmallow would choose to eat it immediately, and receive nothing, or wait ten minutes, and receive two marshmallows. The researchers of the original study claimed that the more willpower the kids had, the better their lives would be when they were adults. New research that tries to replicate this has found that marshmallow tests don't actually determine how a kid's life goes; patience when you're four doesn't seem to have that much of a role in future health or happiness. (What does matter, according to the new data, is how well-off your parents are.)

So patience isn't something we have or don't have from a young age — and you can develop more patience as you age. How do you do it? Science is here to help.

Adjust Your Serotonin

You may recognize the neurotransmitter serotonin from its effects on mood; SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, work as antidepressants by boosting serotonin levels in the brain. But serotonin has a lot of other effects on the body too, and various studies have shown that it might also affect how patient we are. In one in 2018, mice who were given a dose of serotonin were much more capable of waiting for a reward than mice who weren't.

Serotonin can be increased with exposure to bright light or daylight, as well as exercise or eating certain foods, such as eggs, cheese, pineapple or tofu.

Use Your Imagination

A study in 2017 linked imagination and patience in our brain structures. The scientists behind the experiment, which looked at MRI scans of people's brains, think it's because when we try to be patient, we visualize or imagine the better outcomes that will happen if we wait. Checking ourselves so that we don't eat a cheese pizza straight out of the oven often means comparing what will happen if we are impatient (burnt mouth, pizza spoiled) and if we exercise a little willpower (perfectly cooled pizza, delicious meal). That imaginative boost can help patience, they suggest, and that means you should definitely indulge in some daydreams about why you're being patient the next time you're struggling with it.

Practice Intentional Optimism

This is part of the imagination package: studies have shown that if you're able to make yourself feel pre-emptively good about what will happen if you wait for something, you're much more likely to wait for it. A study in the Journal of Neuroscience in 2013 found that the brains of impulsive and patient people are actually different, and that one key way is in how they experience emotion while thinking about situations.

Impulsive people's brains, it turns out, show progressively more excitement and impatience when they've been denied a reward for 30 days and are finally coming close to the day when they're given it. Patient people, meanwhile, show excitement and pleasure at the beginning of those 30 days, as they anticipate how fun it'll be to get that reward. If you want to be able to put off satisfaction more easily, put yourself in the shoes of your future self and imagine how awesome that final reward in 30 days (or whatever) will be.

Visualize That You Have Patience

Human psychology is weird, and nothing demonstrates that more than a study in 2018 that found an extremely reliable key to having a lot of willpower. The trick? Believing that you've got patience and willpower in spades. The study found that the more people believed that they were inherently patient people with inexhaustible willpower, the more patiently they acted.

Some of us, it turns out, think about willpower in the same way we think about energy reserves: that we have a certain amount, and then it gets used up and we start acting impulsively. Others believe it's always present and can't ever be exhausted. The second group acts more patiently overall and doesn't regard challenges to their willpower as a signal that they're "using it up". If you recognize that you think about willpower the first way, try to shift your thinking to perceive it as inexhaustible, and you'll discover you have more of it available.

We can't all have the patience of a saint. But with a few psychological tricks and tips, we can definitely improve our ability to put off satisfaction today for big payoffs in the future.