Can Self-Gratification Impact Your Feelings of Depression?

As humans, it is only natural for us to pursue positive feelings. I mean, who would choose to feel uncomfortable or in pain over feeling pleasured and satisfied? It has been ingrained into our DNA to chase after the things that make us feel good.
Now, this makes perfect sense from an evolutionary stance. Typically, things that make us feel good will aid in survival, whereas something that brings pain or discomfort tends to put us at a higher risk of death or injury.
Back when our ancestors fought for their lives every single day, these instincts were quite handy. However, those instincts have become slightly less necessary in today’s world. So, where does that leave us?

What is Self-Gratification?

Self-gratification is the act of pursuing those pleasurable feelings and desires. In a world of convenience, self-gratification has become increasingly easy to chase, allowing us to feel instant gratification. Have you found yourself craving attention? All you have to do is log onto social media. Wishing for a chocolate milkshake? It is as simple as opening an app and ordering delivery. See a new trend on social media? Simply pull up Amazon, and it’ll be at your door in no time.
Now, this ease with which we can pursue our desires and pleasures can certainly seem great. However, if all of these conveniences were so great, why is depression the leading cause of disability in the world?
Could it be that instant gratification might not be the pathway to happiness we all believed it would?

How Instant Self-Gratification May Lead to Depression

It would make sense that a world in which we have everything we desire is a world with lower depression rates and more people feeling happy than ever. Unfortunately, that is not how our brains work. In a world that allows us to satisfy our desires with a snap of our fingers (or, in our technology-ridden world, the push of a button), we tend to find ourselves craving more and more, never quite being able to reach that feeling of satisfaction.
This is because, as studies have found time and time again, too many dopamine hits builds our brain’s tolerance to the hormone, leaving us needing a greater and greater hit to feel the pleasure it brings. This is often the cause behind addictions, depression, and other mental health issues.
One of the greatest examples of the importance of delayed self-gratification is the Stanford marshmallow experiment. In this experiment, researchers examined children who could or could not delay snacking on marshmallows.
Walter Mischel, the professor, and psychologist in charge of the experiment, gave a group of preschoolers a chance to choose between receiving one marshmallow as a treat at any time they desired or waiting fifteen minutes and receiving two marshmallows.
He then examined these preschoolers as they grew older and found that those who successfully delayed their gratification scored higher on their SAT scores, felt a greater sense of self-worth, and appeared to have a lower risk of developing addictive behaviors.
These findings have been supported for years as more and more researchers pursued a greater understanding of the relationship between delayed gratification and emotional, cognitive, and psychological health.

Using Self-Gratification to Your Advantage

As we have learned so far in this article, the saying, “too much of a good thing,” is truer than we may have ever believed. However, that does not mean you should never pursue your desires or feelings of pleasure. Self-gratification certainly has its benefits. Happy hormones like dopamine and serotonin are released as we reach those feelings of pleasure and satisfaction.
If we are lacking in these happy hormones, our brains and bodies will begin to suffer from consequences like:
  • A higher risk of depression or anxiety
  • Less motivation
  • Back pain
  • Weight fluctuations
  • Issues with energy or sleep
  • Low moods
  • Hallucinations or delusions
So, if we raise our dopamine levels too much, our health may suffer. But, if we don’t raise them enough, our health may still suffer. That leads us to the question, is there a way to use self-gratification to your advantage?
As we saw in the Stanford marshmallow experiment and in the many experiments that followed, delayed gratification has been linked time and time again to improved mental health. We have found that delayed gratification provides mental health benefits like improved cognitive functioning, greater mental resilience, improved relationships, and fewer risky behaviors and bad habits.
Not all of us may be the greatest at resisting an easy feeling of satisfaction. Fortunately, discipline is something you can develop with practice and mindfulness. To grow your discipline and pursue a life full of less instant gratification and more delayed gratification, there are a few steps one may choose to take.
The first is to consider the effects instant gratification has had on your own life. Has the instant gratification of likes and engagement left you addicted to social media? Has the instant gratification of a fast food run left you feeling sick or unhealthy? Consider how instant gratification has left you feeling less satisfied than you thought you would be. This is an excellent wake-up call to begin your journey with.
The second step you can take is to practice mindfulness more often. Many of us find ourselves trapped in a loop of instant gratification because we are disconnected from our true inner thoughts and desires. If you live your life stuck on autopilot, you will struggle to know your true desires, leaving you pursuing instant gratification repeatedly as your brain seeks that hit of dopamine.
The third step in your journey to pursuing more delayed gratification is to set small goals, to begin with. Every goal achieved will send a dopamine hit through your brain, allowing you to feel that sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. This will help you feel happy, satisfied, and motivated.
The final step in your journey is to allow yourself a greater reward than anything you could achieve through instant gratification. This will keep you motivated to pursue delayed gratification as you experience greater pleasure and satisfaction from the reward than you ever could from instant gratification.
Delayed gratification has been linked to improved mental health. With so many amazing benefits, taking the longer route has never seemed more tempting. So, take the long way to your deepest desires. Your mental health and overall wellbeing will thank you.
Mischel, W., Ayduk, O., Berman, M. G., Casey, B. J., Gotlib, I. H., Jonides, J., Kross, E., Teslovich, T., Wilson, N. L., Zayas, V., & Shoda, Y. (2010). “Willpower” over the life span: decomposing self-regulation. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 6(2), 252–256.
Pietrangelo, A. (2019, November 5). Dopamine Effects on the Body, Plus Drug and Hormone Interactions. Healthline.
World Health Organization. (2021, September 13). Depression. World Health Organization.
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