Small Pleasures Are Just As Important For Our Wellbeing As Long-Term Goals

By Emily Reynolds

When it comes to leading a happy and fulfilled life, many of us focus on long-term goals: what job we want, whether or not we want children, or how to reach a certain level of skill at a particular hobby or interest. There’s a reason so much research looks at how to achieve the things you value in life.

As such, we often (try to) eschew short-term pleasures, deeming them a distraction from loftier goals. But according to a study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the pursuit of those more immediate pleasures could be just as important for our wellbeing.

The ability to engage in short term pleasures might not be the same for everybody, reasoned the researchers, Katharina Bernecker from the University of Zurich and Daniela Becker from Leibniz-Institut für Wissensmedien. In other words, some people may be more liable to fail at achieving short-term pleasurable goals because they’re too focused on long-term ones. So in the first study, the team developed a self-report scale to assess individual differences in this ability to pursue “hedonic” goals. Questions measured hedonic success, or how well people manage to pursue short term pleasures (e.g. “in my spare time, I can relax well”), and intrusive thoughts about long term goals whilst engaging in short term pleasures (e.g. “I cannot stop myself from thinking about things I still need to do”).

In the next pair of studies, the team used the scale to investigate whether people with high or low hedonic capacity experience greater wellbeing. In the first, participants answered questions from the World Health Organization wellbeing scale, which measures cognitive and emotional wellbeing, while in the second, participants completed the Satisfaction With Life scale, rating themselves on items like “in most ways my life is close to my ideal”. Hedonic capacity and self-control were assessed in both, as were physical symptoms (e.g. dizziness and faintness), including those of depression and anxiety (e.g. “nervousness or shakiness inside”).

Participants’ hedonic capacity was significantly and positively related to both general wellbeing and life satisfaction: people with a greater capacity to pursue short-term pleasures were also happier in their lives. Self-control (which is needed to achieve long-term goals) was also positively associated with wellbeing, but the effect of hedonic capacity was greater. Greater hedonic capacity was also related to fewer physical symptoms.

In a third study, hedonic capacity was measured before participants took place in a ten minute relaxation session, during which they stated how many intrusive thoughts they experienced. Before and after this session, participants rated how relaxed, tense, or alert they felt. As expected, those with higher levels of hedonic capacity experienced fewer intrusive thoughts during the relaxation phase; in addition, people who experienced more intrusive thoughts didn’t find the session as relaxing as those who did not.

To explore the findings in a real life setting, a fourth study recruited participants in specific contexts — e.g. a cafe, park or in a yoga class. Participants filled in a survey assessing their hedonic capacity and trait self-control, and indicated how much they were enjoying themselves in the moment and their reasons for being there. Companions of the participants also filled in a questionnaire judging the participants’ pleasure in the moment. Again, those with high hedonic capacity reported having a more positive experience and were also judged by others as having a better experience. A further study confirmed these findings.

So while a focus on long-term goals and self-control may increase wellbeing, it seems as if short-term pleasures are also a key factor — though intrusive thoughts can hamper this process, as results from the third study suggested.

Of course, self-control is important to some degree — giving in to every whim you experience probably isn’t going to equal a particularly healthy existence, as the team notes: a balance between the two is likely to result in higher levels of wellbeing.

If you’re the sort of person who finds it hard to enjoy short-term pleasures and are more likely to experience intrusive thoughts, this balance might be harder to come by than you might hope. But giving yourself permission to eat, drink and be merry could do more for your wellbeing than you might have expected.

Beyond Self-Control: Mechanisms of Hedonic Goal Pursuit and Its Relevance for Well-Being

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest