New research shows benefits of small treats in goal attainment

Posted by Andrew Trounson,

A new study links simple pleasures with making better progress toward personal goals. Enough simple pleasures can even counter the negative effects of a bad day.


The results have implications for workplace productivity and stress management, says lead author Nicole Mead, associate professor at the University of Melbourne. There are even implications for advertising, which often markets pleasures as temptations or indulgences rather than as something constructive.

“Promoting the benefits of simple pleasures could be a workplace intervention to help people towards achieving work goals,” says Mead, who started the research with colleagues when she was at the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University in the Netherlands. “By acting as buffer against small annoyances, simple pleasures could also help people to fortify themselves psychologically to deal with stress and take on challenges.”

This graph shows the range of simple pleasures and small annoyances recorded by participants, and the percentage of each in relation to all simple pleasures or small annoyances. (Credit: Mead et al., art by Sarah Fisher)

“People intuitively think pleasure gets in the way of achieving goals like meeting a deadline, so people tend to brag about how hard they are working and how little sleep they are getting to reassure themselves that they are working hard. But we all know that if you work too hard you can risk burning out,” says Mead, a member of the management and marketing department at the Faculty of Business and Economics.

“We wanted to test whether simple pleasures could actually help people achieve their goals.”

Ups and downs

They recruited 122 students and staff at Erasmus University to participate in a six-day survey to monitor the number of simple pleasures and annoyances that they experienced during the day. They then compared that with the evening reports the participants submitted on how far they had gone towards achieving their goals that day.

To counter the tendency of people to forget the good things that happen to them while remembering the bad, the researchers designed the survey to be completed online several times a day using mobile phones. That way the memory of the experience was still fresh. Participants were prompted by text message five times a day and given a window of 30 minutes to record the simple pleasures and small annoyances they had experienced since they were last prompted.

The researchers left it up to participants to decide what a simple pleasure was and what constituted a small annoyance. The only guidance they gave was the experience needed to be commonplace or mundane.

One person’s treat is another’s annoyance

The results show a significant correlation between experiencing a high number of simple pleasures and goal progress. They also found that small annoyances only detracted from goal progress when people experienced few simple pleasures. When people recorded many simple pleasures, small annoyances had no impact on goal progress.

“A simple pleasure seems to restore people’s psychological reserves to do well.”

The most commonly recorded simple pleasure was socializing, followed by food, university, entertainment, romantic relationships, and hobbies. Interestingly, what some people found pleasurable was annoying for others.

The most common small annoyance, for example, was university, followed by socializing. Romantic relationships were also a bother for a significant number of people. Other annoyances that feature significantly were work, commuting, and health. The survey itself proved a relatively common annoyance, accounting for almost five percent of all recorded small annoyances.

“Our results suggest that the real power of simple pleasures that make us feel good seems to come from when things aren’t going well. A simple pleasure seems to restore people’s psychological reserves to do well,” says Mead.

She says further research is now needed to go beyond the correlations they have found and further test the hypothesis. She notes, for example, that further tests could be developed to control for some people being naturally disposed to recording more simple pleasures than others.

Does pleasure-seeking seem sinful?

Mead says the research provides an antidote to Western society’s traditionally hostile view of pleasure in which self-denial and toil are promoted as virtues and pleasure-seeking is seen as a vice.

She says the idea that pleasure leads to destruction goes back at least to the Ancient Greeks and their stories of the sirens, creatures whose beautiful voices lured sailors onto dangerous rocks. The Greek hero Odysseus (or Ulysses) has to go to elaborate lengths to hear the beautiful siren song by having his crew block their ears with wax while he is tied to the mast to stop him from jumping overboard to his death.

“Suspicion towards pleasure is deeply ingrained in the Western culture. But people are now taking a more compassionate approach to their lives. After all, we aren’t robots. It is probably better to accept that we have desires and use them in positive ways rather than try to deny them. And our research suggests that enjoying some simple pleasures can actually help you in achieving your goals.”

The study appears in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research. Coauthors of the study are from the Bauer School of Business at the University of Houston and the Social Cognition Center Cologne at the University of Cologne.

Bottom Line for Mentors

Small treats and simple pleasures can be a useful tool when working with a mentee on a task they consider difficult or arduous. As the researchers note, though, it is important to know what your mentee considers to be a simple pleasure or annoyance. What you may find relaxing may be boring or annoying for your mentee (and vice versa). Please also keep in mind that a treat doesn’t necessarily have to be a sweet snack or other food. It can be an activity, such as your mentee’s favorite game or hobby, so feel free to think creatively with your mentee when deciding upon what treats you can use to help them achieve their goals.

Helping your mentee learn to effectively balance small daily pleasures with work can help them in their pursuit of tasks like school projects or chores at home. While these tasks may seem small in isolation, they can help add up to much larger positive outcomes, such as academic success, for your mentee.

To read the original research, click here.