Do we know instinctively what kind of activities are conducive to lasting happiness? If so, why don’t more of us do them more often? By Christian Jarrett
The luxury microwave meal was delicious, the house is warm, work’s going OK, but you’re just not feeling very happy. Some positive psychologists believe this is because many of us in rich, Western countries spend too much of our free time on passive activities, like bingeing on Netflix and browsing Twitter, rather than on active, psychologically demanding activities, like cooking, sports or playing music, that allow the opportunity to experience “flow” – that magic juncture where your abilities only just meet the demands of the challenge. A new paper in the Journal of Positive Psychology examines this dilemma. Do we realise that pursuing more active, challenging activities will make us happier in the long-run? If so, why then do we opt to spend so much more time lazing around engaged in activities that are pleasant in the moment, but unlikely to bring any lasting fulfilment?
Across two studies, L. Parker Schiffer and Tomi-Ann Roberts at the Claremont Graduate University and Colorado College, surveyed nearly 300 people (presumably US citizens, average age 33/34 years) via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website about what they thought of dozens of different activities: some passive like listening to music or watching movies, others more active and potentially flow-inducing, such as making art or meditating. Specifically, the participants rated how enjoyable, effortful, and daunting they considered the activities to be, as well as how often they engaged in each of them in a typical week. The participants also identified which activities they considered the most and least conducive to lasting happiness.
There was a clear pattern in the participants’ answers: they identified more effortful activities as being more associated with lasting happiness, yet they said they spent much more time on passive, relaxation-based activities, like watching TV. Looking at their other judgments, the key factor that seemed to deter participants from engaging in more active, flow-inducing activities is that they tended to be seen as particularly daunting and less enjoyable, even while being associated with lasting happiness. The more daunting an activity was deemed to be, the less frequently it was undertaken (by contrast, and to the researchers’ surprise, the perceived effort involved in the activity did not seem to be a deterrent).
Schiffer and Roberts consider this to be a paradox of happiness: we know which kind of activities will bring us lasting happiness, but because we see them as daunting and less enjoyable in the moment, we choose to spend much more of our time doing passive, more immediately pleasant things with our free time. Their advice is to plan ahead “to try to ease the physical transition into flow activities” to make them feel less daunting. For example, they suggest getting your gym clothes and bag ready the night before, and choosing a gym that’s close and convenient; or getting your journal and pen, or easel and paintbrushes, ready in advance.
The other thing they suggest is using mindfulness, meditation or some other “controlled consciousness” technique to help yourself to disregard the initial “transition costs” of a flow activity, such as the early pain of a run, and to focus instead on its pleasurable aspects and the long-term rewards.
“Future research is needed in order to empirically back our proposal that preplanning, prearranging, and, and controlled consciousness may aid overcoming the activation energy and transition costs that stand in the way of our true happiness,” the researchers said.