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Do you always eat dessert first?

When the world has its way with you, you reconsider your position on delayed gratification

Many of us are taught that fun is always for afterwards. But after what?
Many of us are taught that fun is always for afterwards. But after what?

As a very young woman, our Beena aunty was always trying out new recipes for parties and Sunday lunches at home in Bengaluru. At a couple of parties in a row, she was annoyed to see that her guests had largely neglected her gorgeous three-tier desserts. More for us, thought my cousins and I, but she was determined to find out why. As it turned out, several of her friends—from different parts of Karnataka—said they were more used to eating sweets first thing in a meal, not at the end. All of us children were like, “how awesome and sensible!"

The order of appearance of mithai is a matter of convention. But what about the order of appearance of fun?

Many of us are taught that fun is always for afterwards. After what? In the 24-hour cycle, it should be after you finish all the work—the paying kind. Or if you are from a liberal household, the paying kind and the self-actualizing kind. If you are from a healthy kind, all that and the calorie-burning kind. And currently, deprived of the fleet of domestic workers who keep Indian capitalism alive, you must have fun after housework. You know, of course, that the magic spin mop is the solitaire diamond of the quarantine. My friend Jugal tells me that there is a well-organized magic mop black market in Mumbai’s Kandivali.

In the business of living too, fun was once supposed to come afterwards. In my 20s, I met tons of people who told me sincerely that they planned to do social service after they retired, as if it was a treat to look forward to, or that they planned to fall in love after they got good jobs. I was always startled but had a sneaky suspicion that they were right and I was the idiot. Science thought so too. In the 1960s, in a Stanford University experiment, researchers gave a group of five-year-olds one marshmallow each. The children were then told that if they didn’t eat it while the adult was away, they would get a second one when he came back. Follow-up research showed that the children who managed to wait and not eat that first marshmallow went on to do better in school, were less likely to be addicts or fat and had better social skills.

Then I met friends who spent their youth and health trying to save the world. Others who were avidly looking for love, love, love. And most radically, I had a best friend who woke up in the morning and watched movies before going to work.

Once I realized that as an adult you could watch movies before 8am, everything changed. People were not quite what they seemed. The super-successful doctor was a dessert-first person, waking at 4am to read novels. My slightly older lawyer friend, who felt that at 27 I was too old to be doing “stupid timepass" like online dating, was secretly a no-dessert person.

I grew to notice that some people treated gap years like chocolate and others like it was karela (bitter gourd). Whether you intended to enjoy yourself or improve yourself with gritted teeth depended on your personality (please note that when I was young, folks responded to the phrase gap year like Lady Grantham asking, “what is a weekend?" Please also note that new labour laws might make future Indians too ask, what is a weekend?).

I decided at some point that my favourite aspiration, metaphorically and literally, was a thali in which you could pick not just when you ate the mithai but also how often you nibbled at it. I was prepped for this insight to change my life, my childhood having been punctuated by summers with my mother, who had no moral positions about waking early or watching TV in the morning or reading pulp fiction anytime. She had an unstated moral position about dealing with consequences. Perhaps it was not a moral position because I only understood that was her approach when I was old enough to understand consequences, or as Toby of Fleishman Is In Trouble says, “How the world would have its way with you despite all your careful life planning."

Weeks and weeks into our new post-corona lives, I can see usually hard-working friends swinging into a no-dessert mode and others into dessert-everyday mode. When the world has its way with you, you reconsider your position on delayed gratification. And as it turns out, science has also been reconsidering. In 2012, the University of Rochester replicated the marshmallow experiments with a key modification. The children were split into two groups. One group was exposed to unreliable behaviour. They were given crayons, for instance, and promised bigger crayons but they weren’t given any. The second group of children was given what they were promised. No surprises that the second group was more likely to wait for a second marshmallow when that was promised. Or as the study says primly, “Wait-times on sustained delay-of-gratification tasks may not only reflect differences in self-control abilities, but also beliefs about the stability of the world." The stability of the world. What a phrase. I don’t know about you but I am looking at my thali of gratification rather carefully right now. No point in waiting till afterwards, if there may be no afterwards.

Cheap Thrills is a fortnightly column about millennials, obsessions and secrets. Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger.

Twitter - @chasingiamb

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