Have you found yourself feeling guilty for indulging in short-term pleasures like eating chocolate or taking a lazy afternoon off because you should be dieting or working instead?
It might be a relief to know that enjoying such hedonic pursuits can be just as, if not more, important for happiness and wellbeing as working towards long-term goals, according to a study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Using self-control to achieve long term goals, such as getting fit or studying for exams, has been consistently linked to positive life outcomes such as better health, academic achievement and greater happiness.
But there’s more to a happy life than getting good grades and being successful on the job, says Katharina Bernecker from Switzerland’s University of Zurich, highlighting the equal importance of hedonic goals, or the active pursuit of pleasure.
“Research so far had a one-sided view on hedonic activities as undermining our more important long-term goals,” she says, like relaxing on the sofa instead of pursuing fitness goals.
On the contrary, her study found that long-term goals can get in the way of enjoying a pleasant pastime, like thinking about exercise when trying to relax.
People’s ability to immerse themselves in pleasurable pursuits, on the other hand, corresponded to greater happiness and life satisfaction, and less likelihood of experiencing anxiety and depression.
Bernecker and Daniela Becker, from Germany’s Leibniz-Institut fur Wissensmedien, derived these findings from a series of independent studies.
First, they developed a hedonism questionnaire to measure the extent to which respondents can indulge in and enjoy short-term pleasures and how often they are distracted by thoughts about things they should be doing instead.
“The questionnaire reflects the idea that in pleasant moments people sometimes get distracted by thoughts about their long-term goals,” says Bernecker, “which in turn undermines their hedonic experiences.”
Respondents also completed a scale on their degree of self-control, which results showed was unrelated to their ability to experience pleasure.
Then they examined how people’s capacity for pleasurable pursuits relates to different wellbeing indicators, followed up with a lab experiment in which volunteers relaxed while the researchers measured how often they thought about things related to their long-term goals.
The findings suggest it’s all about balance. “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 wellbeing and good health.”
It backs up other research that suggests the “highest levels of well-being are achieved by people who walk both paths,” the authors write. It also supports studies showing the negative impacts of one-eyed dedication to long-term goals and a chronic inability to experience pleasure.
Bernecker stresses that they don’t suggest people should necessarily indulge more, but rather enjoy their pleasures, as their study related greater wellbeing to the quality rather than quantity of hedonic activities.
Now, they are investigating how to help people do that. In the meantime, excuse me while I knock off and enjoy some wine and cheese.
Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.
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