Patience, for the Win

Rushing around might get us ahead, but life isn’t a race won with speed

The other day, I was waiting in line to board a bus in London when a scuffle broke out. A woman was trying to force her way to the front, and two people were pushing back.

In Britain, queue-jumping is a crime on a par with farting in an elevator. Even so, when someone told the woman to wait her turn like the rest of us, she shot back, “Patience is for losers.”

The phrase stuck with me not only because it was jarringly rude; it also seemed to catch the spirit of the age. You can imagine it pinned to the wall at a tech startup. Or falling from the lips of a productivity guru.

But is it actually true? In this roadrunner world, is patience a one-way ticket to Planet Loser? Thankfully, the answer is a resounding “No.”

We all know that patient people are nicer to be around than impatient ones. But that’s just the start. It turns out that patience has many other benefits, from boosting health and achievement to forging a stronger society.

The idea that patience is a superpower is not new. Philosophers have long prescribed it for coping with the minor irritations of life and building moral character.

The Roman poet Virgil intoned that “every misfortune is to be subdued by patience.” Four centuries later, Saint Augustine deemed patience “the companion of wisdom.”

Many religions teach patience as a virtue. The Old Testament declares, “Better a patient man than a warrior, a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city.” The Quran warns that “Only those who are patient shall receive their rewards in full.”

Science is now lending credence to these ancient homilies. A growing body of research suggests that patient people tend to feel more grateful for what they have, more satisfied with their lives, and more optimistic.

They are also less likely to suffer from depression or to be weighed down by negative emotions. Why? Perhaps because they meet the slings and arrows of daily life—the faulty printer at work, traffic jams, a long line for the bus—with equanimity.

Patience can be a balm for the body, too. Raging against a late train or a buffering screen releases stress hormones, which can lead to heart disease. Small wonder that patient people tend to sleep better and suffer fewer ulcers, headaches, and other ailments.

Patience can also help you get stuff done. Some studies suggest that patient people put more work into reaching their goals. Michelangelo poured the last 18 years of his life into building the glorious St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Even though he knew he would die before finishing, he did not move fast and break things. Michelangelo’s mantra: “Genius is eternal patience.”

This holds true in the age of first-mover advantage and just-in-time management. A study in the Harvard Business Review found that companies that exercise patience outperform those that do not.

But being patient is not just about burnishing you and your bottom line. It also helps others. Patience bound our ancestors together by enabling them to do good deeds without demanding instant reward. Research suggests that patient people are fairer and more forgiving, more empathic, and more cooperative. Translation: Patience makes you a better friend, neighbor, colleague, boss, partner, parent. A better citizen, too: Patient folk are more inclined to vote and to trust people and institutions.

For those not blessed with natural patience, the good news is that anyone can learn to be patient. One way is to perform a little mental jujitsu. Instead of fuming that a line is moving too slowly, reframe those extra minutes of waiting as a chance to do a little reading or people-watching.

Practicing mindfulness can help, too. When frustration spikes, breathe deeply and just notice your feelings. Or gently shift your attention to a smell, taste, or sound that has nothing to do with the source of your annoyance.

When learning to be patient, it pays to start small. First, commit random acts of patience in scenarios with low stakes, such as letting someone merge into traffic or go ahead of you in a check-out line.

Once you can cope with the smaller triggers, move on to the bigger ones, such as a wayward child or a stubborn colleague. If you start to feel impatient with your journey to patience, remember that throwing a tantrum seldom ends well.

Ten minutes after telling us that we were all losers for being patient, the woman jumped off that bus in London—only to realize she was at the wrong stop.

Banging on the door, she demanded to be let back on.

The driver glanced at her, smiled, and drove off.

This article was first published in Radiant Life magazine.

Carl Honoré is a London-based writer, broadcaster, and TED speaker. He covered South America and Europe for the Economist, Observer, National Post, and Time. His best-selling books, including “Bolder"and “In Praise of Slow,” are published in 35 languages. Learn more at carlhonore.info.
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