Indulging in short-term pleasures is just as important for happiness as self-control, a new study finds.
While self-control is often recommended as the best route to happiness, enjoying yourself in the moment leads to long-term happiness, as well as reducing the chance of depression and anxiety.
Goals like learning a foreign language or getting fit can be rewarding, but sometimes we need to have fun.
People who find it hard to enjoy hedonistic pleasures because they are thinking about what they should be doing instead are missing out.
The new study comes in response to a focus in psychology on self-control.
Higher self-control has been linked to all sorts of positive outcomes, along with happiness.
Dr Katharina Bernecker, the study’s first author, said:
“It’s time for a rethink.
Of course self-control is important, but research on self-regulation should pay just as much attention to hedonism, or short-term pleasure.”
For the study, researchers developed a questionnaire designed to test people’s capacity for hedonism.
People who are good at enjoying themselves in the moment tend to agree with statements like:
- “I often do what I feel like doing.”
- “I can follow my desires in the here and now.”
People poor at enjoying themselves agree with statements like:
- “Thoughts about my work sometimes prevent me from enjoying pleasant activities and moments.”
- “I often think about my duties even while I am enjoying a good moment.”
People poor at enjoying the moment tend to get distracted by intrusive thoughts about what they should be doing instead.
Dr Daniela Becker, study co-author, said:
“For example, when lying on the couch you might keep thinking of the sport you are not doing.
Those thoughts about conflicting long-term goals undermine the immediate need to relax.”
The results showed that some people find it hard to indulge in short-term pleasures.
They are also more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety.
None of which is to say that hedonism should be the sole aim of life, said Dr Bernecker:
“The pursuit of hedonic and long-term goals needn’t be in conflict with one another.
Our research shows that both are important and can complement each other in achieving well-being and good health.
It is important to find the right balance in everyday life.”
It can be hard work, though, enjoying yourself, Dr Bernecker said:
“It was always thought that hedonism, as opposed to self-control, was the easier option.
But really enjoying one’s hedonic choice isn’t actually that simple for everybody because of those distracting thoughts.”
One solution for those who find it hard to enjoy themselves is to to set aside specific times for enjoyment.
That way enjoyment is the sole aim of that period of time, hopefully reducing intrusive thoughts about other, more worthy, activities.
The study was published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Bernecker & Becker, 2020).