When you’re having a hectic, hassle-filled day, you likely set all pleasure aside and put your nose to the grindstone. But pausing to chat with a friend or savor a square of chocolate or whatever brings a smile to your face actually could help—not hinder—your ability to get things done. That’s because simple pleasures actually make you more productive.
Simple pleasures are everyday experiences that are positive, short and cost little or no money—things you can savor in the moment. They’re personal, meaning your simple pleasures may not be the same as someone else’s.
Why do we feel guilty about enjoying them? Pursuing pleasurable “vices” instead of practical “virtues” is often seen as a lack of self-control. Society and religions teach us that virtue requires restraint, that work comes first and reward comes after that, said Nicole L. Mead, PhD, a social psychologist at the University of Melbourne in Australia.
Dr. Mead and her colleagues, however, wondered whether the opposite might be true—whether happiness brought on by simple pleasures could offset the negativity caused by life’s small annoyances and actually boost productivity.
The research: 122 university students and staffers were recruited for a six-day study. Each morning, participants texted to the researchers a list of the goals they wanted to work on that day. Five times each day, they received texts from the researchers asking whether they had experienced a small annoyance, a simple pleasure, neither or both in the prior 30 minutes. At night, they reported how much progress they had made on the goals they had listed that morning.
The results: On days when participants experienced many stressors but few or no simple pleasures, their goal progress suffered. However, on days when participants experienced many stressors but also took the time to enjoy simple pleasures, they made better progress on their goals.
Just how can taking time away from work for pleasure help you reach a goal? There are two possibilities, which are not mutually exclusive, Dr. Mead said. One is that pleasures fill our lives with good feelings, which can recharge our batteries and help us focus on our goals. Another is that pleasures connect us to important things in our lives—who we want to be and what matters to us, such as family, friends and good health. Making these connections help us to grit our teeth and pursue our goals no matter how difficult they may be.
Also, positive feelings that come from simple pleasures can broaden our perspective and awareness, opening us up to new possibilities and avenues that we may otherwise be closed to or not even see, Dr. Mead added.
It might seem indulgent to put aside a task and make time for small moments of joy, but once you realize that these moments are steps to completing that task, the guilty feeling should go away. So go ahead and enjoy a funny video, read a chapter in the book you’ve been trying to get to, take a slightly longer but more scenic route on your drive home (and open those windows!)…whatever makes you smile. Document these moments in some way—write them down in your journal or take a selfie—to strengthen the experience, Dr. Mead suggested. And add them to your to-do list under what you “want” to do to balance the column of what you “have” to do.