What Doctors Don't Know About Marshmallows And Happiness

11/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

How long would you last resisting the marshmallow? That is the question asked in the "kid torture" video, a recreation of the study done in the 1960s at Stanford analyzing behavior, willpower, and success. Kids were sat down in a room, presented with a marshmallow, and told they could eat the marshmallow now or wait while the researcher left the room for an undetermined amount of time. If they could wait they would be awarded a second marshmallow when the researcher came back.

In line with most studies that analyze pieces and miss the whole, this study is incomplete. There is a bias in the conclusion, based on a fundamental misconception of what's best for us. When I first saw this video I didn't like use of food as a behavior request. Good way to grind in an unhealthy relationship with food for our kids, with the pendulum swing from denial to mindless stuffing already in the making. And why is two marshmallows better than one anyway? This super-sizing idea that has been loaded on us is at the heart of why America is so unhealthy today.

When I read Jonah Lehrer's article in the New Yorker detailing the study, my unsettled feelings about food torture took a turn to questions of success and happiness, and a confirmed a suspicion that many studies are useless and should be given less attention. Every time a study comes out announcing "yoga is good for you now," have we really learned anything new? Michael Pollan outlines a history of the consumer getting taken for a ride through an endless succession of contradicting studies, while big corporations gain more power and people become more unhealthy and contract deadly diseases. Just because the study says so doesn't make it true. There is more to a carrot than the sum of its parts.

The marshmallow study shows that kids who were able to wait longer for a second marshmallow had more success in life. Kids who followed directions, resisted temptation, and held out for bigger and better supposedly did better in life too. One little girl shown in the video ate her marshmallow right away before the researcher even told her the directions. Now that's living in the moment. She saw, she wanted, and she munched. Other kids in the video became stressed out and tense while they waited. At the end of the video the researcher gave a little boy who waited two marshmallows as his reward. He shoved them both in his mouth at the same time. Great lesson in deferred life planning. Was the reward worth the stress?

Lehrer's article follows little Carolyn and her older brother Craig. The scientists would not release any information about the subjects but Carolyn strongly suspects she would have held out. Her older brother Craig, on the other hand remembers being tested.

"At a certain point, it must have occurred to me that I was all by myself," he recalls. "And so I just started taking all the candy." According to Craig, he was also tested with little plastic toys, where he could have a second one if he held out. Instead he broke into the desk containing the additional toys. "I took everything I could," he says. "I cleaned them out. After that, I noticed the teachers encouraged me to not go into the experiment room anymore."

Carolyn went to Stanford undergrad, got her Ph.D. in social psychology at Princeton, and now she is an associate psychology professor at the University of Puget Sound. Craig moved to LA and did "all kinds of things" in the entertainment industry, mostly in production. He's currently helping to write and produce a film.

What does success have to do with resistance, or with living in the moment? The researchers chose career as their measure of success, but maybe they picked the wrong measure - an error that can lead to all kinds of bad conclusions. Just looking at the conflict in these kids as they're instructed to resist their instincts, it's not hard to see how values and methods of teaching can create difficulties later in life. You may get well-disciplined adults capable of following direction, manning desks, and achieving some success. Unfortunately you'll also too often get adults who feel disconnected from their intuition and dissatisfied with their own direction, however "successful" they may be.

So maybe the little girl who ate her marshmallow had no desire for another, thought the whole thing was silly and wanted to go play. Maybe she weighed the difference of having one now or two later and decided the more enjoyable experience would be to ignore the annoying research lady and eat her yummy marshmallow. And maybe she's still very happily doing her own thing today.

Is someone more likely to be happy if they have a Ph.D or work in production? Maybe Craig's film will be a huge hit. Maybe not. I wonder what a happiness test would come up with. Which sibling do you think would be in better physical, mental, and psychological shape? Who is more tightly wound, and who enjoys their life the most? I would hope both, but happiness isn't a competition, and probably can't be accurately measured in a study.