Healthy Mind

How Short-Term Hedonistic Pleasure in Quarantine Can Improve Your Long-Term Happiness

Mary Grace Garis

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If you’ve been unable to find joy in literally a n y t h i n g for a long time, that’s probably because…well, it often seems like there are fewer things to enjoy right now. Travel is mostly off the table (save for lower-risk road trips), human contact is limited and laden with risk, and current events are bleak. So as of late, it seems the only points of levity in life are outdoor dining (only at a safe social distance from all other people), dogs, and…umm…that’s it. While simple pleasures are pleasures nonetheless, the absence of more concrete joy-sparking events and situations available right now be bad news for your general happiness. But perhaps that’s a mind-set problem that’s very much solvable. ,According to research from University of Zurich and Radboud University in the Netherlands, short-term, hedonistic pleasure can actually bring you long-term happiness…if you know how to access it correctly.

The study analyzed participants’ capacity for hedonism, defined here as the “ability to focus on their immediate needs and indulge in and enjoy short-term pleasures.” To be sure, the operative words here are “focus” and “indulge.” So, perhaps this could mean needlessly ordering chicken fingers with two sauces, because you really, really want them—despite already having dinner available in the fridge. That’s to say, that no matter how big or small the choice is (and it certainly doesn’t require a focus on food or spending money), if you can mindfully recognize that you are treating yourself, the action holds the power to increase your happiness.

The study found that when participants got distracted by intrusive thoughts in moments of relaxation, clouding their mind with other activities, worries, or to-do list nuisances, the otherwise joy-sparking swath of time was compromised. Meanwhile, those who were able to fully enjoy themselves in those situations were found to have a higher sense of well-being in general, and not only in-the-moment pleasure.

This hedonism-supporting approach to long-term happiness is interesting because it seems to go in opposition of a widely held notion that self-control (mindfully eating your dinner that’s available in the fridge rather than ordering chicken fingers, and saving money in the process with that choice) is what makes for long-term happiness. After all, self-control typically honors long-term goals that focus on forward-thinking rather than instant gratification.

“The pursuit of hedonic and long-term goals needn’t be in conflict with one another… 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.” —Katharina Bernecker, motivational psychologist

But, perhaps there’s a happy medium. “The pursuit of hedonic and long-term goals needn’t be in conflict with one another,” Katharina Bernecker, researcher in motivational psychology at the University of Zurich, wrote in the study. “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.”

A great way to balance your hedonistic pleasure while still honoring grander-scale goals for optimal long-term happiness? Schedule it. If you’re working from home, especially, weeks are liable to disintegrate into an amorphous blur. That’s probably because separating the place where you work from the place where you relax can be cognitively difficult, making your downtime look an awful lot like your day job. Lord knows I’m guilty of trying to watch Laguna Beach and simultaneously answering emails. The trouble with that, though, is that I’m never fully “off.” The WFH life can make taking an actual break feel tough, but there’s a sweet, pleasure-boosting spot of having your cake, hedonistically eating it, too, and getting your work done to support your long-term goals.

The researchers believe that consciously planning and even time-blocking periods of enjoyment into your schedule could help to separate them more clearly from other activities. This allows us to engage with pleasure in a way that’s mindful and rejuvenating, not destructive to long-term goals.

And, by the way, you can make your own definition of pleasure; maybe it’s a night scheduled for takeout food that you can look forward to, or maybe it’s a scheduled sexcapade with your significant other, or maybe it’s something else. Whatever lights your hedonistic pleasure fire!

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