One big question threads through the entire history of the discussion of happiness, from ancient philosophers to modern-day psychologists: What does the word mean?
At least since the time of the ancient Greeks, thinkers have identified two types of happiness. One is the momentary joy of eating something delicious or spending time with the ones you love. The other, called eudemonia, or "life satisfaction," has a broader definition. This is the feeling you get from a life well lived, the satisfaction of achieving your goals. Experiencing it often involves doing things that aren't pleasant at all.
Which is why Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman says many people don't want to be happy. He doesn't mean they like to eat gruel and sleep on stone. He means that many of us (and entrepreneurs will be well aware of these tradeoffs) consciously sacrifice short-term pleasures like sleep and family time for long-term life satisfaction.
But can you take this approach to life too far? Is it possible to sacrifice too much in-the-moment joy for a later sense of achievement? Common sense suggests you can, and a fascinating new European study confirms many of us don't indulge in nearly enough hedonism. In fact, more joy now may even lead to accomplishing more overall.
Are you letting yourself enjoy life's pleasures?
To examine the role of momentary pleasures in our lives, the research team developed a questionnaire that measured how much study subjects were able to enjoy short-term pleasures like a delicious treat or a slothful day at home. It seems like these indulgences should be simple to enjoy, but that's not what the team found.
Instead, they discovered that, because we are so focused on long-term goals, many of us struggle to stop beating ourselves up and actually enjoy the good things in life.
"For example, when reading a book you may keep thinking about exercising or the laundry that is waiting to be done. Our studies show that people who usually get distracted by thinking about activities or tasks that they should be doing instead have a harder time enjoying pleasant moments," writes study author psychologist Katharina Bernecker, in a Medium post explaining the results.
That's not just a wasted chance to snatch a little joy from life. It also has important longer-term consequences. Those who struggle to relax into even small doses of hedonism are, unsurprisingly, also more prone to depression and anxiety. Perhaps more surprising, they are also less likely to say they are satisfied with their life, which is typically a measure of overall accomplishment rather than momentary pleasure.
Perhaps that's because allowing yourself occasional breathers from the pressure to achieve helps you avoid burnout and live a more productive life over time. This study doesn't say exactly why hedonism and life satisfaction are linked, but other research has found that, when it comes to a life well lived, there definitely is such a thing as too much self-control.
In short, the ability to really sink into everyday joys predicts not just short-term happiness but also long-term life satisfaction. Relishing that cake or guiltlessly slacking off sometimes promotes both momentary joy and eudemonia.
Don't throw all self-control out the window
These findings aren't license for a steady diet of Cheetos and ice cream, of course, and you won't achieve anything much if you spend every day binge watching Netflix. The researchers stress that it's how deeply you allow yourself to enjoy treats that matters. Not their frequency. So don't take this as a green light to go wild with your chosen vice.
Still, the findings are an important reminder for the highly ambitious. Guiltlessly enjoying simple pleasures doesn't make you weak or lazy. In fact, it probably makes you more resilient and productive in the long term. So stop beating yourself up every time you order dessert or lie around doing nothing on the weekend. Occasional hedonism will actually help you achieve more satisfaction in the long run than always being "good."