Happy people make some surprising choices about how to spend their time

Indulging in a piece of chocolate cake. Meeting up with your best friends for drinks. Going for a hike in the wilderness.

We like doing things that feel good because, well, they feel good. It’s something psychologists call the “hedonic principle.” Basically, the principle goes, we try to do pleasurable things whenever possible and avoid un-pleasurable things whenever we can.

Given our pleasure-seeking track record, it’s pretty remarkable that any of us actually gets anything done.

So remarkable, in fact, that social scientists have hotly debated the question for decades. After all, if all we want to do is enjoy ourselves, how do we commit to mind-numbing chores like doing the laundry or challenging tasks like finishing a work project? More importantly, if all we seek is pleasure, then why do some of us spend such a large proportion of our lives unhappy?

A new study published August 15 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences takes a pretty big step towards answering it. The researchers found that, contrary to popular belief, we actually don’t spend all of our time going after activities that make us feel good. In fact, it’s at times when we’re feeling our best that we tend to gravitate towards doing the least-pleasurable tasks on our lists, like laundry and chores. So maybe we forego things that will make us feel happy immediately (like happy hour) for duller things that have the potential to make us feel satisfied in the long-term (like housework).

The finding could have big takeaways for our understanding of happiness and motivation. “Our positive emotion, perhaps, can be seen as a resource,” Dr. Jordi Quoidbach, one of the study’s lead authors and a psychology professor at Barcelona’s University Pompeu Fabra, told Business Insider. “When we don’t have enough, we need to replenish it, but as soon as we have enough, we can potentially use that to get things done.”

Couple hikingKan Wu/FlickrLicensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Sharealike licence.

Happiness is a delicate balance

To come to their conclusions, the researchers — an international team of psychologists, economists, and data scientists from universities including Harvard, Stanford, and MIT — spent a month using a smartphone app to monitor 28,000 European people’s moods and activity choices. First, the app would have people rate their current mood on a scale from 0 (very unhappy) to 100 (very happy) at random times throughout the day. Then, it would ask them to report what they were doing from a list of 25 things (they were free to pick more than one).

Not surprisingly, how people felt in any given moment sharply affected what they chose to do in that moment. When people were feeling bad, they tended to do things to make them feel better, like going on a hike or meeting up with friends. Conversely, when folks were feeling good, they tended to do things that weren’t inherently fun, like doing the laundry or cleaning up the house. (Of all the logged activities, spending time with other people had the strongest links to positive emotions, while using social media had either neutral or slightly negative links.)

All of this suggests that for most of us, happiness is a delicate balance. When we’re feeling down, we choose activities with short-term rewards to boost our spirits. When we’re feeling good, we sacrifice fun activities for the potential of longer-term rewards.

And it could be good news for the workplace, too, added Quoidbach. “Sometimes managers equate positivity and happiness at work with a propensity of people to slack off. But one of the takeaways from this study is that cultivating positive emotion might be one way to actually get people to be more productive because of this sort of buffer or resource.”

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