In today’s world, technological advancements have made everything faster, simpler and more convenient. Tasks that were once laborious or time-consuming can now be achieved with a few taps on our phones or a few clicks of the mouse. Hungry but out of food in the fridge? Someone can have groceries delivered to you within an hour, or better yet, food from your favorite restaurant. No more finding parking, waiting in checkout lines, loading up our car, and pushing the cart back across the lot. No more chopping vegetables, seasoning meats, waiting for things to cook and then washing the dishes after. Seeing our family and friends who live far away is no longer an ordeal of travel and coordination, we can simply call them and we’ll see their face.
As the digital era has risen, we have grown to enjoy instant gratification to the point that many of us now expect it like a basic right. However, there’s no such thing as free lunch and we are slowly forgetting what it means to be patient as a result. Time is the one currency we truly have a finite amount of, and while it may seem like valuing your time means not wasting a single moment of it, I would challenge you to rethink what “wasting your time” really means.
I own and am the head physician at a dermatology practice, and like all doctor’s offices we have a waiting room. I recently had a patient come in whose husband had recently passed, and I spent about half an hour talking to her as she related to me the difficult time she has had since he passed. When I walked into my next patient’s room, he was quite angry at having been made to wait. He told me: “my time is money, and you’re wasting my money by keeping me waiting.” He told me he would not be returning to my office, and I respect his right to do so.
Contrast this with another waiting room experience I had within the past year. I walked into a patient’s exam room and they told me “hey, did you know you have the richest man in St. Lucie county in your waiting room?” I knew the patient he was talking about, who had been coming to me for more than two decades and had done well in life, but I did not know that he was “the richest man in St. Lucie county.” When it came time for me to meet with him I joked with him about what the other patient had said and he said to me “Tim, I don’t mind that you keep me waiting sometimes. I like that you treat me like everyone else, that’s how I want to be treated.”
Ask yourself this: of the two patients who waited, which do you think truly values their time most? The one who allowed themselves to sit and fume at being left waiting, or the one who was genial and humble about the process? There is something inherently human in practicing patience. It is an extension of empathy, an understanding that the world does not in fact revolve around you.
Studies have shown that practicing patience can lead to better mental health. This can’t be hard to believe if you simply try and picture the first waiting patient –– a red face, furrowed brow, practically steaming –– not the healthiest picture one can conjure up. Fuller Theological Seminary professor Sarah A. Schnitker has spent much of her career researching the physical and mental benefits of patience, and according to a 2007 study conducted by her and UC Davis psychology professor Robert Emmons, patient people tend to experience less depression and negative emotions. They posit this may be due to the fact that people who have the ability to be patient are better equipped to cope with upsetting or stressful situations. Those within the study also rated themselves as more mindful and felt more gratitude, more connection to mankind and the universe, and a greater sense of abundance. Doesn’t that sound like an appealing way to go throughout life?
In 2012 Schnitker expanded on our current understanding of patience, recognizing that there are in fact different subtypes that each require a unique mindset. There is interpersonal patience, which isn’t so much about waiting but instead about dealing with people one finds annoying with equanimity. Studying nearly 400 undergraduates, Schnitker found that those who have better interpersonal patience skills tended to be more hopeful, as well as more satisfied with their lives. Courageous patience, which was also linked to more hope in her study, is the ability to persevere through life’s hardships without becoming frustrated or despairing.
I know that when I am helping my patients through an unfortunate diagnosis, I hope for them to have courageous patience to weather the storm, hoping they realize that with time and treatment they can come out the other side. Finally, there is the patience that one probably consciously reminds themselves to have most often: patience over daily hassles. Traffic jams, long lines at the grocery store, bad cell phone service –– like the others, Schnitker’s study found that those who had patience over the little things were more satisfied with life and less depressed.
The study also showed that even putting as little as two weeks worth of work on your patience can bring benefits to your mental health. Schnitker invited over 70 undergraduates to participate in two weeks of patience training, in which they learned to identify feelings and their triggers, regulate their emotions, empathize with others and meditate. After completing the training, the participants not only reported feeling more patient toward the trying people in their lives, but also felt less depressed and experienced higher levels of positive emotions.
While the effects of patience on our mental health have been well-documented, less has been done in terms of studying its physical effects. However, in the 2007 study conducted by Schnitker and Emmons, they found that patient people were less likely to report health problems such as headaches, acne, ulcers, diarrhea and pneumonia. There has also been other research conducted that has found people who exhibit impatience and irritability tend to have more health complaints and worse sleep. Regardless, if patience has the ability to reduce our daily stress, it’s not a stretch to reason that it can also aid us in avoiding the proven damaging health effects of stress.
Practicing patience can also help you form deeper and more meaningful relationships. Think of the best friend who comforts you night after night over the heartache that just won’t go away, or the grandchild who smiles through the story she has heard her grandfather tell countless times. Our relationships with others are what truly make our time on this worth meaningful, and I personally believe that having patience means assuming some personal discomfort to alleviate the suffering of those around us. I can’t think of a better example of this than in a 2008 study that put participants into groups of four and asked them to contribute money to a common pot. Once everybody had done so the pot would be doubled and redistributed, and while there was a financial incentive to be stingy, patient people contributed more to the pot than other players did.
Going back to Schnitker’s 2012 study and analysis of types of patience, selflessness isn’t limited to interpersonal patience alone. All three were associated with higher “agreeableness,” a personality trait characterized by warmth, kindness and cooperation. However, in particular those who had high interpersonal patience tended to be less lonely than those with lower levels. Making and keeping relationships requires you to accept human beings for what they are –– flawed individuals trying their best to navigate this world –– and by having the patience to recognize that you can express more compassion, generosity, mercy and forgiveness.
Taking it to an even broader perspective, one could argue that patience is one of the pillars of civil society as we know it today. Evolutionary theorists believe that it was patience that helped our ancestors survive, allowing them to delay gratification when it came to working with others and leading to the cooperation it took to eventually become the world as we know it today. The famous Stanford marshmallow experiment perfectly illustrated this concept playing out in the modern age. In the early 1970’s the study saw children brought to a room and given a marshmallow. The tester then left the room for a few minutes, telling the child that if they wait to eat the marshmallow until they get back they will get a second one. When followed up with 30 years later, they found that the children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index (BMI) and other life measures.Patient people are even more likely to vote, willing to select a candidate knowing that they will have to wait months or even years for them to implement better policies and exact lasting change. In other words, patience is linked to trust in the people and the institutions around us. Whether through nature or nurture, some of us are innately patient while others struggle with it daily. Regardless, I said in the title of this piece to practice patience, because it is a skill that can be honed and forgotten without flexing your muscles for it. I challenge you the next time you find yourself feeling impatient to stop and think about what you would do with those extra 30 seconds it is taking someone to parallel park. Is whatever you would have spent that time doing worth the potential hours of residual frustration you feel after? Instead, try to truly make every minute of your day count by practicing patience.