Illustration: Kieran Blakey

The Nuance

How to Cultivate Patience, the Ancient Virtue We All Need Right Now

The way we live now discourages patience. It’s time to reprioritize this lost virtue.

Two days before the Associated Press declared him the winner of the 2020 presidential election, Joe Biden tried to settle his nation’s rattled nerves. “[Democracy] sometimes requires a little patience,” he remarked. “Stay calm . . . the process is working.”

For many, it wasn’t working fast enough. Every hour that passed seemed to turn up the tension and frustration of the U.S. electorate. Protests and counterprotests broke out. After just a few days of waiting, America seemed poised to lose its collective shit. Contrast this state of affairs with the 2000 contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore, which remained in limbo for five weeks following Election Day. If you can’t imagine today’s America putting up with that kind of delay, experts can’t either.

“Patience is a character strength that our society has definitely neglected,” says Sarah Schnitker, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Baylor University. “Over the past 20 years in particular, as our technology has advanced at a very fast pace, I think it’s changed our expectations about when and how much we should have to wait as well as our general ideas about suffering.”

Much of Schnitker’s research has centered on patience. She says that many of history’s great philosophers, from Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas, regarded patience as one of humanity’s noblest attributes. Likewise, most of the major Eastern and Western religions — from Judaism and Christianity to Islam and Buddhism — describe patience as a fundamental virtue to be admired and cultivated.

“Patience is a character strength that our society has definitely neglected.”

But since the Industrial Revolution ushered in a new era of speed, production, and consumption, patience has lost its appeal, Schnitker says. “Our culture is all about quick wins and solving problems fast,” she adds. “If you’re patient, there’s this misconception that you’re kind of a doormat — that patience is not something we think of as winners having.”

There are economic, political, and environmental reasons to believe that America’s disdain for patience will eventually cost it (and the world) dearly. But setting aside those concerns, patience also seems to be really important when it comes to mental health and well-being, Schnitker says. “It’s positively associated with life satisfaction, with hope, with self-esteem, and with regulated behavior, and it’s negatively associated with loneliness, depression, and anxiety,” she says.

Patience can alleviate the pressure to advance and achieve that many of us feel so urgently, and patience may replace the shallow gratifications that many of us now demand — and often come to depend on — from the stuff we buy, watch, and otherwise consume. “I think that this year — both with the pandemic and with the political situation — has shown us that we need to develop more patience,” Schnitker says.

Fortunately, there are some evidence-backed ways to do that.

Understanding what patience looks like

Situations that demand patience tend to come in three types.

“There’s daily hassle patience,” Schnitker says. This type includes waiting in line at the store, waiting for a web browser to load, and other quotidian sources of delay or frustration. The next type she terms “hardship patience,” which refers to open-ended situations like living with an illness or enduring other sources of persistent concern or uncertainty. Finally, there’s “interpersonal patience,” which is the type a person requires when dealing with an obstreperous child, an obnoxious coworker, or some other difficult person.

Speaking with Elemental the day before Biden was announced as the winner, Schnitker said, “The current moment is interesting because the election really involves all three types of patience. It’s waiting for an outcome, and maybe it’s dealing with relatives who don’t agree with you, and it’s also dealing with thoughts about long-term polarization and the need to find more unity.”

She says that “patience” (like the word “patient”) is derived from the Latin word for suffering. And people who possess patience are those who are able to endure something unpleasant without letting it influence their emotions or behavior.

Spend some time thinking about that definition, and you begin to realize how central patience (or its opposite) is to anxiety, depression, anger, and other negative emotional states as well as to compulsive behavior. All of these ills are tightly bound up with an inability to tolerate a person or a situation. It could even be said that the current moment’s fixation with happiness — with finding more of it and making it last — is driven in part by impatience; we don’t want to have to wait long for our next moment of joy or pleasure or bliss.

Why are we all so impatient these days? Again, Schnitker says that many elements of contemporary life prioritize speed and ease over patience and endurance. “We are all about instant gratification, and I think the advertising and technology industries push us in this direction,” she says. Whatever it is that a person wants — food, entertainment, information, stuff, sex, money, enlightenment — the fastest route to each is continually pitched to us as the best route despite evidence to the contrary.

Haste and urgency, for example, are associated with stress and arousal. “When we speed everything up — when we have this feeling of go go go — that’s all sympathetic nervous activity,” says Peter Payne, a researcher at Dartmouth College who studies meditative movement and the health benefits of practices such as qigong and tai chi. While sympathetic nervous system activity is fine in moderation, chronic overactivity of this system is associated with anxiety, depression, headaches, poor sleep, and diseases of the heart, gut, and immune system. Rushing all the time seems to promote this kind of overactivity and its many detriments.

“It’s positively associated with life satisfaction, with hope, with self-esteem, and with regulated behavior, and it’s negatively associated with loneliness, depression, and anxiety.”

Impatience may also rob people of experiences that give life meaning. Researchers have found that effort seems to be an essential ingredient in satisfaction, contentment, and other positive emotions. “A lot of happiness lies in the doing, not in the having done,” says Barbara Fredrickson, a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina. She says that the expenditure of effort can contribute to a sense of purpose, meaning, and interconnectedness — all of which are sources of self-esteem and other positive states.

The message here is not that everything fast or easy is bad. Rather, it’s that fast and easy are not always optimal. When people lose the ability to be patient, they may also be losing access to the things that make life most satisfying and enjoyable while also raising their risks for all the health problems associated with stress.

How to cultivate patience

The more people exercise their patience muscles, the stronger those muscles become. “There are a lot of ways to practice waiting in life, and doing this can really help us build up our patience,” Schnitker says.

For example, whenever you encounter a wait — whether it’s in line at the store or sitting in traffic — those are good opportunities to practice patience. “Not using that time to reach for our phones and check our social or news feeds — I think can really help,” she says. To her point, research from Temple University has found that frequent smartphone use is associated with both heightened impatience and impulsivity.

During periods of waiting or frustration, Schnitker says it can be helpful to practice a technique known as cognitive reappraisal or “reframing,” which basically means looking at something as an opportunity rather than as a hardship. “When people are able to reframe what could be considered a threat or a source of suffering as a useful challenge, we know that helps,” she says. “So if you tell yourself that patience is good for my mental health and I need to develop it, then you can reframe those periods of waiting as great opportunities to help yourself.”

She says that reframing is also helpful when dealing with people who get on your nerves or during situations that entail extended periods of waiting. “So with this election, I could tell myself that this waiting should restore some of my faith in the system because it’s showing me that we care about our democracy and making sure everyone’s vote counts,” she says. In interpersonal contexts, reframing could entail changing your thoughts from “this person is so annoying” to “being around this person is an opportunity for me to practice my patience.” It could also entail making an effort to see the situation from another person’s point of view.

Finally, Schnitker says that mindfulness training and similar forms of meditation are helpful because they pump up your awareness of your own thoughts and feelings. It’s this awareness that allows you to make helpful tweaks — to your habits and also to your appraisals of people and situations — that will bolster your patience.

“Right now, we don’t have a lot of cultural narratives that help us make sense of waiting or suffering,” she says. Rediscovering and reprioritizing patience may be one way to create more-helpful narratives — and to push back against so much that feels wrong with the world today.

I write about health and science. I live in Detroit with my wife and kids. I’m trying to learn German, but my progress so far is nicht gut.