Q. A friend of mine told me recently that I needed to learn “patience.” I don’t understand what patience really is much less what it has to do with brain function!

A. Many people struggle with the concept of patience, much less take time to build the requisite skills. Some studies suggest thatwhen given a choice, all animals, humans included, are inclined to favor short term rewards over long term rewards. This is despite the often greater benefits associated with long term rewards. Unfortunately, many societies today seem to operate on the “I want it right now” principle, whether referring to preventive health and anti-aging strategies or steadily pursuing a goal that may take years to reach.

What us it? There are many definitions of “patience.” Here are a couple:

  • Patience is the state of endurance under difficult circumstances, which can mean persevering in the face of delay or provocation without acting on negative annoyance/anger; or exhibiting forbearance when under strain, especially when faced with longer-term difficulties; it’s the level of endurance one can take before negativity. It is also used to refer to the character trait of being steadfast.
  • Patience is the ability to bear provocation, annoyance, misfortune, or pain, without complaint, loss of temper, irritation, or the like; an ability or willingness to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay; the willingness to steadily persevere toward a goal in an even-tempered manner.

In terms of brain function and emotional intelligence or EQ, patience involves an ability to defer gratification (for a more beneficial long-term goal) and to be content with what is when there’s nothing you can really do to alter the moment (as in busy traffic or waiting in line). A learned skill and a choice to implement, patience is a key aspect of EQ. Patience doesn’t mean you give up exploring options or searching for optimum solutions in life¾it does mean you avoid exhibiting behaviors that result in negative outcomes while you explore other options, especially when you are not thrilled about what is happening at the moment.

As a function of the brain, honing the skill of patience is a choice and requires practice. It is likely moderated by the prefrontal cortex. This means that until the prefrontal cortex is “done” (mid to late 20s usually), a person may not have a really good grasp of this skill (as with willpower), although hopefully the individual has been practicing and developing the skill throughout their growing up years.