If you love chocolate, having even more of it sounds very appealing. Same with coffee, puppies, sleeping-in or whatever counts as your personal indulgence. But recent research shows that the idea of “underindulgence” can actually drive greater feelings of satisfaction and happiness.
Researchers from the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School conducted studies with people around the world, allowing them to indulge in a particular treat as much as they wanted, or having them steer clear of it for a week. Chocolate lovers who gave it up for a week enjoyed it that much more the next week.
They also found that treating others to an indulgence may make you feel even better than treating yourself. When researchers gave people on the street an envelope with a $20 bill and a note instructing them to treat themselves to something special, not surprisingly, people enjoyed the experience. But when the note instructed them to use the money to treat someone else, the participants reported even greater enjoyment. Even toddlers were happier sharing some coveted crackers than simply eating them themselves.
The study has pretty easy applications in our personal lives in terms of edible treats, purchases and things like binge-watching The Crown. Thinking about what you might “give up” for a time to enable you to better appreciate it can be a powerful driver of personal satisfaction.
The same thing applies in terms of appreciating what you already have, the researchers found. That can easily apply at home, but can be especially applicable in work environments where we often focus on aspects of a job that we don’t enjoy, rather than those elements we would miss if they were taken away.
A survey by the John Templeton Foundation of 2,000 Americans found that people are less likely to feel or express gratitude at work than anyplace else. The respondents also reported feeling very little gratitude for their current jobs, ranking them at the very bottom of a list of things they’re grateful for. Some of the reason, researches hypothesize, may be due to the transactional nature of the workplace: you do X and you will be paid Y. No matter how much you enjoy your job, you do not show up for free.
In the same study, a little more than a third of respondents felt that expressing gratitude at work could even lead others to take advantage of them. Yet, an ongoing body of research points to how appreciating the positive aspects of your job and workplace can help boost feelings of self-worth, enable colleagues to trust one another more and increase the willingness of team members to assist one another.
If there are positive aspects of your working experience that have become rather invisible to you over time, rediscovering them may boost both professional and personal satisfaction.
Appreciating what you have does not mean being satisfied with the status quo or not striving for greater growth and advancement, but it can make your daily experience more enjoyable as you make the journey.
Conduct your own experiment
When it comes to tangible indulgences, such as sweet treats or scrolling through your Instagram feed, it’s easy to develop your own “underindulgence” experiment. Simply avoid that item or activity for a week, add it back in after seven days and then pay attention to whether it feels more rewarding than usual, and how it affects your mood. The next month, you can experiment with temporarily eliminating a different indulgence for a week.
For less tangible experiences, your thought experiment will require more imagination. Sit quietly for several minutes to reflect on positive attributes of your work life. That might include friendly and helpful colleagues, challenging work, a beautiful office, healthcare benefits for your family or financial security. Now, truly imagine what your experience would be like without one of those things. How different would you feel during the work day without friendly colleagues to work with toward shared goals? Without a boss who understands the challenges of remote work and young children? If your work didn’t push you to learn and grow? If you were not able to provide for your family?
Experimenting with temporarily depriving yourself of simple pleasures can make them that much more enjoyable. And, imagining your work life without some of the elements you value most (but may overlook on a day-to-day basis) can re-energize your positive feelings around them. The more you can continue to appreciate the aspects of your job you like most, while continuing to address those that could be improved, the more you will create a virtuous cycle of enthusiasm, interest and renewed energy for positive change and growth.