Why don’t we do what makes us happy?

Going for a run, cooking a nice meal, settling down for a Netflix binge – happiness looks like different things to different people. But new research in the Journal of Positive Psychology has found that, although people know what will make them happier in the long-run, they often opt for activities that provide only short-lasting enjoyment.

Through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website, researchers surveyed 300 people about what they thought of different activities: some passive like listening to music or watching movies, others more active such as making art or meditating. Participants were asked to rate how enjoyable, effortful and daunting they considered each of the activities to be – and also how often they engaged in each of them in a typical week. The researchers also asked participants to say which of the activities were most and least conducive to lasting happiness.

Participants clearly identified more effortful activities as being more associated with lasting happiness – things like going for a run or cooking – but admitted that they spent 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,” Christian Jarrett, editor of BPS Research Digest, says. “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).”

The researchers considered this to be a paradox of happiness: although people know what they need to do for lasting happiness, they find the activities daunting and less enjoyable in the moment – so they choose to do more passive activities that are more immediately pleasing.

So how do we make the change to engage in activities that will bring longer term enjoyment and happiness? According to the researchers, planning ahead “to try to ease the physical transition into flow activities” is key to making them feel less daunting. They recommend things like packing your bag for the gym the night before, or getting your artistic supplies out before you go to work so that you’re ready to engage when you get home.

Like many others, the researchers also recommend using mindfulness, meditation or other “controlled consciousness” techniques to help make it easier to face those daunting activities that will actually bring long term happiness.

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