We all set ourselves long-term goals from time to time, such as finally getting into shape, eating less sugar or learning a foreign language. Research has devoted much time to finding out how we can reach these goals more effectively. The prevailing view is that self-control helps us prioritize long-term goals over momentary pleasure and that if you are good at self-control, this will usually result in a happier and more successful life.
“It’s time for a rethink,” says Katharina Bernecker, researcher in motivational psychology at the University of Zurich. “Of course self-control is important, but research on self-regulation should pay just as much attention to hedonism, or short-term pleasure.” That’s because Bernecker’s new research shows that people’s capacity to experience pleasure or enjoyment contributes at least as much to a happy and satisfied life as successful self-control.
Bernecker and her colleague Daniela Becker of Radboud University developed a questionnaire to measure respondents’ capacity for hedonism, i.e. their ability to focus on their immediate needs and indulge in and enjoy short-term pleasures. They used the questionnaire to find out whether people differ in their capacity to pursue hedonic goals in a variety of contexts, and whether this ability is related to well-being.
They found that certain people get distracted by intrusive thoughts in moments of relaxation or enjoyment by thinking about activities or tasks that they should be doing instead. “For example, when lying on the couch you might keep thinking of the sport you are not doing,” says Becker. “Those thoughts about conflicting long-term goals undermine the immediate need to relax.” On the other hand, people who can fully enjoy themselves in those situations tend to have a higher sense of well-being in general, not only in the short term, and are less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, among other things.
“The pursuit of hedonic and long-term goals needn’t be in conflict with one another,” says 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, simply sitting about more on the sofa, eating more good food and going to the pub with friends more often won’t automatically make for more happiness. “It was always thought that hedonism, as opposed to self-control, was the easier option,” says Bernecker. “But really enjoying one’s hedonic choice isn’t actually that simple for everybody because of those distracting thoughts.”
This is currently a topical issue with more people working from home, as the environment where they normally rest is 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,” says Bernecker.
So what can you do to enjoy your downtime more? More research is needed, but the researchers suspect that consciously planning and setting limits to periods of enjoyment could help to separate them more clearly from other activities, allowing pleasure to take place more undisturbed.
Katharina Bernecker und Daniela Becker (in press). Beyond self-control: Mechanisms of hedonic goal pursuit and its relevance for well-being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 27 July 2020. DOI: 10.1177/0146167220941998