According to the famous marshmallow test, people who can postpone their needs are happier and more successful in the long run. Now psychologist Katharina Bernecker is turning this hypothesis on its head. Her findings suggest that enjoying pleasure in the moment promotes overall well-being.
Text: Simona Ryser
English translation: Caitlin Stephens
The legendary marshmallow test conducted with children in the 1970s still lingers in our memories. We suffered and learned along with the kids in the study as they agonized over the tempting treat on the table in front of them. If they managed not to give in and eat the single marshmallow, they would afterward be allowed to eat two. However much their taste buds screamed at them to pop the heavenly smelling candy into their mouths, if the children could hold out against the temptation, they would win the challenge. And indeed, it turned out that humans are capable of postponing reward even at the age of four – some of them at least.
Self-control, explains motivational psychologist Katharina Bernecker, senior teaching and research assistant at the UZH Department of Psychology, is an important skill. It enables us to achieve long-term goals, to strive for success and to forge a career. It is associated with positive feelings, contentment and well-being in later life, as proven by numerous psychological studies. “Don’t be seduced by a quick pleasure, set your sights on the long term!” is the lesson from the marshmallow test that has shaped generations. How many marshmallows have we passed up over the years thanks to this belief? And the times when we couldn’t resist, was our pleasure tempered by a guilty conscience?
Sofa or gym?
Willpower has become the sacred mantra of motivational psychology. There are countless strategies, tips and tricks to get the better of our lazy natures. But Katharina Bernecker, who has done a lot of research into self-control, began to wonder whether it really had to be such a struggle of restraint and abnegation? “I thought maybe our view of self-control was too one-sided,” says Bernecker. Together with fellow researcher Daniela Becker from Radboud University in Nijmegen, she decided to find out whether succumbing to temptation while pursuing a long-term goal is really so harmful. The scientists started at the moment of temptation. Hitherto, research had focused only on those who actually made it to the gym in the evening. If they stayed home on the sofa instead, it was seen as a failure of self-control, and the well-meaning scientists tried to find ways to get these lazy folk into the gym after all.
Of course, the couch potatoes also experience a conflict, because they sit there thinking about how they should actually be working out. The long-term goal of getting fit can get in the way of the short-term goal of indulging in pleasure and enjoying yourself, just as much as the other way around.
Pleasure is positive
This is where Bernecker and her colleague stepped in. The motivational psychologists wanted to investigate people’s ability to enjoy themselves, and developed a questionnaire for this purpose. The respondents were asked how well they were able to enjoy short-term interests and pleasures without being distracted with thoughts of long-term goals, and what effect this had on their well-being. Surprisingly, short-term enjoyment ability was found to be just as important to well-being as facility for self-control. People who can live in the moment – indulge in a book, a good meal, a glass of wine or a piece of chocolate without a guilty conscience – experience more positive feelings, are happier in everyday life, are more satisfied with their lives and are also less likely to show symptoms of depression or stress such as headaches, tension or stomachaches. Pleasure seekers, concludes Bernecker, experience a higher level of mental and physical well-being. But the key is not just the pleasurable experience itself: “You need to be able to enjoy it without getting distracted.”
To investigate enjoyment ability, the researchers carried out a study in which participants were instructed to relax for eight minutes in the laboratory. They could do a relaxing activity, such as drawing a mandala or doing a crossword, or just have a rest. If distracting, intrusive thoughts came up that reminded them of what they had on their to-do list instead of relaxing, they wrote them down on a sheet of paper. Those who experienced fewer such thoughts reported feeling correspondingly more relaxed afterwards. In fact, the researchers found, some people are better at enjoying themselves than others. But why do some people find it easier to enjoy pleasurable experiences than others? It’s not about trying to get rid of disruptive thoughts – “that would be another form of self-control,” Bernecker explains. It is rather that for some people those negative thoughts simply don’t appear at all when they are relaxing. Bernecker wants to find out why that is. In order to be able to objectively measure positive feelings, she also plans to measure brain activity at the moment of relaxation, and observe how our facial expressions change in moments of indulgence.
“Pure enjoyment takes place in the here and now,” says Katharina Bernecker. We know about this experience from the concept of flow, for example – i.e. the feeling of being so completely absorbed in an activity that we forget about everything else. When you immerse yourself completely in the moment and surrender to it, positive feelings arise. If you enjoy them, they do not get in the way of the longer-term goal in any way – on the contrary, stresses Bernecker, the path toward the goal can also offer feelings of happiness and well-being.
Stop constantly striving
The ability to enjoy oneself is undoubtedly also linked to self-esteem, says the psychologist. What is my worth if I haven’t had an amazing career, I’m not super good-looking and I haven’t traveled to 30 countries? If I’m at peace with myself, those things don’t matter and I may find it easier to enjoy the moment and not constantly strive for something better. In fact, enjoyment ability seems to be an unusual gift in today’s overachieving high-pressure society. Our everyday lives are permeated by opportunities for self-optimization such as fitness apps, nutrition tips, yoga and meditation courses and career advice. Even when modern offices are designed with attractive recreation zones to encourage employees to relax, it is with the intention of making them more productive. If, as Bernecker’s research suggests, pursuit of perfection is not an ideal way to live after all, many of us may find ourselves breathing a sigh of relief. However, enjoyment can also tip over into addiction, for example if people turn to alcohol to forget their problems, relieve stress or dispel a bad mood. Up to now, substance addiction has been combated – quite successfully – with training based on self-control, for example by associating beer with negative images so that the reflex to reach for the bottle no longer seems appealing.
Bernecker and Becker also examined the relationship between alcohol consumption and enjoyment ability. They found that those who were less able to enjoy themselves were more likely to drink to compensate for negative feelings. “Those with high enjoyment ability, on the other hand, were more likely to drink to further improve a good mood or for social reasons, neither of which tends to be associated with problematic use.” That could be an important clue in combating addiction, Bernecker says. Instead of only trying to improve their self-control, people could also be taught to develop their capacity for enjoyment.
The psychologist refers to a remarkable initiative in Iceland, where there was a widespread alcohol problem among the country’s young people in the 1990s. As a counter-strategy, a state-supported program was developed to offer a wide range of leisure activities, including sports, music, art and dance. The young people were thus able to have fun and experience positive feelings without alcohol. The success of the program was staggering: In 1997, 30 percent of young people surveyed said they had been drunk in the past month; in 2014, that number was down to 4 percent.
Is Katharina Bernecker a hedonist herself? She smiles – she’s a very ambitious person, she says, but the study results have given her cause for reflection. She now tries to have some work-free weekends when she can let her enjoyment have free rein. That has been a bit more difficult in these pandemic times, however. Short-term pleasures like going to a café, meeting friends or going away for the weekend have been in short supply. Then you’re forced to fall back on yourself, and perhaps simply lying on the sofa with a good book, baking a cake, or digging out your old musical instrument can bring a little piece of happiness. Or letting yourself eat the candy now without a thought for tomorrow? Katharina Bernecker nods with a satisfied smile.
Simona Ryser is a freelance journalist and author.
Five steps to enjoyment
1. Find out what you really enjoy, or what you can enjoy without a guilty conscience.
2. Consciously make time for these activities in everyday life so that you can really take pleasure in them.
3. If you are distracted by thoughts of duties or long-term goals, try to assess if they are really urgent.
4. If you really have something else to do urgently, don’t worry that it didn’t work out with the enjoyment – get the task done and enjoy yourself later.
5. If the distracting task is not urgent, make a specific plan to deal with it later (e.g. “I’ll make that annoying phone call straight after lunch”).
The soul on a calm sea
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristippus of Cyrene is considered the founder of hedonism (from the Greek word hedone meaning desire, joy, pleasure). According to his teachings, which were further developed by Epicurus, a good life involved striving for happiness and avoiding suffering. He compares the states of the soul with a journey through the sea which is moved by the wind: Suffering is felt by the soul when the sea is stormy and the waves are high, while pleasure is felt when the waves are gentle. Ataraxia, or serenity, occurs when there is no wind – which Epicurus described as the highest pleasure and actual goal of life. In everyday language usage, hedonism has negative connotations and is often linked to selfishness. But the concept of hedonism in psychology refers to behavior that maximizes positive emotions and experiences and minimizes negative ones.