We’re all familiar with the hedonic principle, in which we avoid pain and seek out enjoyable experiences. It’s what makes you read Twitter when you should be working, or watch Netflix instead of washing the dishes. When you ignore the cabbage you were supposed to cook for dinner and order pizza instead, that’s the hedonic principle at work. And yet we consistently manage to overcome these urges in order to get nasty jobs done.
How? It often doesn't seem possible. In order to find out how we manage to overcome our desires and do grunt work, researchers at Harvard devised an experiment. They made a smartphone app that allowed them to track the activities and moods of 28,000 volunteers in real time.
The app was deployed and used for an average of 27 days. At random times throughout the day, participants were presented with alerts that gave them a questionnaire, asking them to rate their current mood, from 1 to 100, and to report on what they were doing before their phone interrupted them. They could pick from a list of activities, checking multiple boxes if necessary. The list included activities like meditating/praying, shopping, doing housework, watching TV, exercising, and more. The results were culled to select participants "who answered two consecutive questionnaires or more within a range of 12 hours."
A picture emerged from this tracking. People pick an activity based on how they feel at that moment. "People seek mood-enhancing activities when they feel bad, and unpleasant activities when they feel good," says the paper. That is, when we’re feeling down, we exercise, or other things that cheer us up, and when we’re feeling good, we don’t mind tackling the housework, or standing in line at the post office, for example.
This mechanism might be essential to our survival. Without it, we’d only ever do the things we like, putting off painful-but-essential tasks forever. The big lesson: If you're feeling upbeat, it might be a good time to take on an unpleasant task. If you leave it until later, you might not have the emotional stamina to get it done.
"These findings clarify how emotions shape behavior," says the report, "and may explain how humans trade off short-term happiness for long-term welfare. Overcoming such trade-offs might be critical for our personal well-being and our survival as a species."
We’ll leave you with one final thought from the study, which relates to choosing what to do with your time. "On average, people live about 600,000 hours," it says, "and whether we decide to spend a greater or lesser number of these hours working, sleeping, socializing, or watching television has crucial consequences for our mental and physical health."
Think about that next time you launch Twitter, or switch on the TV.
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