Why researchers are encouraging us to embrace hedonism

Experts say 'the pursuit of hedonic and long-term goals needn't be in conflict with one another'

31 July 2020 - 08:00 By AFP Relaxnews
In psychology, general opinion holds that prioritizing long-term goals over momentary pleasure will result in a happier and more successful life. A new study challenges this approach.
In psychology, general opinion holds that prioritizing long-term goals over momentary pleasure will result in a happier and more successful life. A new study challenges this approach.
Image: Beli_photos/iStock via AFP Relaxnews

Do you feel guilty when you succumb to the temptation of your couch rather than hitting the gym? Swiss and Dutch researchers are encouraging us to let go of this way of thinking and arguing for a better appreciation of hedonism.

In psychology, prevailing opinion holds that self-discipline helps us prioritise our long-term objectives over momentary pleasures. Planning for the future and setting long-term goals helps us to gain self-confidence and make progress in life, which usually leads to more happiness.

These are important parameters of emotional wellbeing — except when they become a source of anxiety.

Researchers at the universities of Zurich, Switzerland and Radboud, The Netherlands, created a questionnaire to measure respondents' capacity for hedonism, or their ability to focus on their immediate needs and enjoy short-term pleasures, to examine how this related to their wellbeing.

They concluded in a meta-analysis published this week in the journal Personality and Social Psychology that time spent relaxing (resting, going to the cinema, reading, going to restaurants, and so on) is just as important as working or participating in enriching activities like learning a language or practising a sport.

People who were able to fully relax during leisure activities tended to have a higher sense of wellbeing, and were less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety.

The study authors say the scientific literature on the subject has largely been targeted at examining how we can achieve our goals most efficiently.

“It's time for a rethink,” says Katharina Bernecker, researcher in motivational psychology at the University of Zurich.

“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 wellbeing and good health. It is important to find the right balance in everyday life.”

This topic particularly resonates in the current moment, when many people across the world are working from home. “Thinking of the work you still need to do can lead to more distracting thoughts at home, making you less able to rest,” adds Bernecker.

So what can you do to enjoy your free time and relax without feeling guilty? While more research is needed, the study suggested a few possibilities. Carving out specific moments for idle or leisure time and setting time limits in order to more completely separate them from other activities is a start towards allowing ourselves real enjoyment without guilt.