Hedonism may be key to a happier, more satisfying life

  • If you have a lot of self-control, it might be time to rethink your life
  • A study found that a bit of hedonism leads to a happier life and less depression
  • The pandemic is distracting people from life's simple pleasures, but there may be a solution

The philosophy of hedonism, the belief that pleasure and happiness – and the absence of pain – are the sole components of well-being, is often criticised for being inherently egoistic and selfish. However, two research psychologists from Switzerland’s University of Zürich believe otherwise.

While it may not be the same as accomplishing a long-term goal, such as buying a house, giving in to temptation by splurging on a restaurant meal, for example, does make life more fulfilling and satisfying, they say. In fact, they argue that believing that the only path to a happy life is years of self-control is flawed thinking. 

“It’s time for a rethink,” said Dr Katharina Bernecker, researcher in motivational psychology at the University of Zurich in a news release. “Of course self-control is important, but research on self-regulation should pay just as much attention to hedonism, or short-term pleasure.” 

The study was published in the scientific journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Not the first study to suggest an alternate way of thinking

Self-control has long been linked to accomplishing long-term goals, such as getting fit, pursuing a higher level of education, or starting a business. When this happens, it ultimately leads to positive life outcomes such as better health and more happiness.

According to the researchers of the study, there is, however, more to a happy life.

“Decades of research have shown that self-control is associated with numerous positive outcomes, such as well-being… We argue that hedonic goal pursuit is equally important for well-being, and that conflicting long-term goals can undermine it in the form of intrusive thoughts,” they wrote.

This recent study supports previous research that suggests the “highest levels of well-being are achieved by people who walk both paths”, the authors write. 

Self-control and distraction from relaxation

For the study, Bernecker and Dr Daniela Becker used a psychological questionnaire to test volunteers on how they respond to the temptations of hedonism. The duo wanted to assess whether or not these temptations distracted them from their long-term goals, as well as their overall well-being.

They found that some people whose goal was to lose weight, be involved in more sport, or improve their mind, were often distracted by intrusive thoughts in these moments of relaxation or enjoyment, thinking about the 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,” said Berncker. “Those thoughts about conflicting long-term goals undermine the immediate need to relax.”

Interestingly, their sense of well-being was also found to be lower than those who were able to "switch off" and relax without thinking about anything else they should be doing, suggesting that people who are able to enjoy the simple things in life are less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, as they can enjoy themselves without worrying about the consequences.

The solution: finding a balance

Working towards your long-term goals while also being able to indulge in a guilt-free relaxing bath, or not beating yourself up about devouring a chocolate slab, is the ultimate solution, say the researchers. In other words, it’s not about indulging more, but rather achieving a balance between the two.

“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,” said Bernecker.

Bernecker added that hedonism, as opposed to self-control, was always thought of as the easier option, but that truly enjoying one’s hedonic choice isn’t so simple for everybody because of the distracting thoughts they might have.

Working from home during lockdown

Since the start of lockdown, thousands of people began working from home, which has led to constant stress and anxiety for many.

Considering our homes – a setting that we associate with rest and leisure – has now suddenly become associated with work, switching off from work mode and recharging, as this recent Health24 article explains, may therefore be hugely challenging.

Bernecker weighed in on the current topical issue: “Thinking of the work you still need to do can lead to more distracting thoughts at home, making you less able to rest,” she said.

What you need to focus on, the researchers suggest, is consciously planning and setting limits to periods of enjoyment, which may then allow pleasure to take place in a more undisturbed way. 

READ | How much work brings happiness? Not much, study shows

READ | 'Be happy' isn't so simple, especially amid coronavirus worries – but it's seriously good for health

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