Persistence and self control are often promoted as the two qualities you need to reach your goals. But this overlooks a considerably more easygoing attribute that can also improve your chances of successfully achieving what you set out to accomplish. Being a hedonist — one who is able to fully enjoy daily pleasures like good food, a beautiful day or a peaceful half hour relaxing — can be just as important to staying motivated over the long haul as self discipline. And it's a lot more fun.

“It's time for a rethink,” Katharina Bernecker, one of the authors of a new study, says. People's capacity to experience pleasure or enjoyment contributes at least as much to a happy and satisfied life as successful self-control. “Of course self-control is important, but research on self-regulation should pay just as much attention to hedonism, or short-term pleasure.”

Those who are able to enjoy moments of relaxation are happier. They are less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, and this helps keep them motivated.

Bernecker, a researcher in motivational psychology at the University of Zurich, and her colleague, Daniela Becker of Radboud University, developed a questionnaire to measure a person's ability to pay attention to their immediate needs and enjoy short-term pleasure — also known as hedonism. The questionnaire helped them find out whether people differ in their capacity to pursue hedonic goals in a variety of contexts, and whether this ability was related to well-being.

When some people try to relax, they quickly become distracted by worries about things they should be doing instead. “For example, when lying on the couch you might keep thinking of the sport you are not doing,” says Becker. “Those thoughts about conflicting long-term goals undermine the immediate need to relax.”

People who are able to fully enjoy moments of relaxation tend to have a higher sense of well-being and are less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. This also helps keep them motivated, too.

Of course lying in a hammock all day isn't going to help you reach your goals. The idea is to let moments of pleasure energize and motivate you to continue. “The pursuit of hedonic and long-term goals needn't be in conflict with one another,” says Bernecker. “It was always thought that hedonism, as opposed to self-control, was the easier option.” “But really enjoying one's hedonic choice isn't actually that simple for everybody because of those distracting thoughts.”

Finding the right balance can be hard for those who are easily distracted or tend to worry. Shutting off work concerns can be especially difficult right now, with so many working from home, making it even harder to compartmentalize work and leisure activities. Says Bernecker, “Thinking of the work you still need to do can lead to more distracting thoughts at home, making you less able to rest.”

There are ways you can help yourself learn to enjoy your downtime more. It may help to first keep in mind that sitting around worrying is not productive. The authors suggest you consciously set aside a specific period of time for enjoyment of the sights, sounds and pleasures of your free time. This should help your moments of pleasure to take place in a more undisturbed way. Then you can return to your goals with renewed energy. You can do the same thing with work time. Build formal breaks into your work — have lunch, take a run — and return recharged.

The study is published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

This story, part of our end-of-the-year series designed to help you reach your goals for the New Year, originally ran on August 3, 2020.