In the pursuit of happiness, self-indulgence is just as important as self-control, according to a new study from the University of Zurich. The researchers found that the capacity to experiences life’s simple pleasures, also known as hedonism, leads to a greater sense of well-being and satisfaction.
A lot of emphasis is placed on prioritizing self-restraint to achieve success and happiness through long-term goals. But these goals often clash with momentary pleasures. The goal of eating healthier and losing weight, for example, does not always coincide with enjoying a delicious meal.
Study lead author Katharina Bernecker is a researcher in motivational psychology at the University of Zurich.
“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,” said Bernecker.
In collaboration with Daniela Becker of Radboud University, Bernecker set out to investigate how a hedonistic approach may influence well-being, and whether an individual’s capacity for hedonism varies in different contexts.
The team designed a survey to measure respondents’ capacity for hedonism – their ability to focus on immediate needs by indulging in and enjoying short-term pleasures.
The study revealed that some people get distracted by intrusive thoughts in moments of relaxation or enjoyment by thinking about what they should be doing instead.
“For example, when lying on the couch you might keep thinking of the sport you are not doing,” said Becker. “Those thoughts about conflicting long-term goals undermine the immediate need to relax.”
By contrast, the researchers found that people who can fully enjoy themselves during pleasurable moments tend to have a higher overall sense of well-being. A greater hedonistic capacity was also linked to a reduced risk of depression and anxiety.
“The pursuit of hedonic and long-term goals needn’t be in conflict with one another,” said Bernecker. “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.”
Unfortunately, relaxing on the couch or eating out more often does not automatically lead to happiness.
“It was always thought that hedonism, as opposed to self-control, was the easier option,” said Bernecker. “But really enjoying one’s hedonic choice isn’t actually that simple for everybody because of those distracting thoughts.”
With more people working from home, the resting environment is now suddenly associated with work. “Thinking of the work you still need to do can lead to more distracting thoughts at home, making you less able to rest,” said Bernecker.
The solution, according to the researchers, may be the conscious planning of downtime. They theorize that setting limits and establishing periods of enjoyment could help to separate down time more clearly from work and other activities, allowing pleasure to take place undisturbed.
The study is published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.