There’s a difference between short-term and long-term happiness. Newly published research shows that when you are working out in aerobics class or doing your taxes, you may not enjoy the moment, but you will on average feel happier and more competent when it’s finished. The good news, though, is that you will be happy BOTH in the short term AND in the long term when doing activities that feel self-directed or freely chosen or that increase your connection to a friend.
The New Research on Short-Term and Long-Term Happiness
This news comes from Ryan Howell at San Franscisco State University, USA, and his colleagues, David Chenot, Graham Hill and Colleen Howell, in a research paper published online this month by the Journal of Happiness Studies. Perhaps even more importantly, they also found that the happier you are, the more “in the moment enjoyment” you’ll get from your freely-chosen or connection-building activities.
Howell’s research is in an area called self-determination theory and provides important new findings that will improve our understanding of what makes us happy and when. Self-determination theory (SDT) proposes that we have 3 fundamental needs; for autonomy (feeling self-directed or ‘the authors of our own lives’), competence (needing challenges that make us feel capable) and relatedness (feeling connected and close to others). (See our previous PPND articles on the influence of self-determination on sex, parenting, and motivation).
Numerous studies have shown that people whose needs are satisfied overall, feel happier. What Howell and his colleagues have shown is that not only does this happen over the longer term, but that daily and even hourly variations in how these needs are being met influence our daily and hourly happiness. (That’s happiness as measured by experienced enjoyment minus experienced stress). In other words, the office meeting where your boss acknowledges your support and contribution to the team may satisfy your relatedness need and boost your well-being for that hour. It will also probably add to your overall enjoyment of the day.
It’s Official: Hard Work Isn’t Fun
However, it looks like that momentary boost in happiness will not come from challenging work that builds our sense of competence. Howell and colleagues found what most of us have already experienced, namely, that sometimes a job is only satisfying when it’s over. I hate doing my taxes and paperwork, but my word, do I feel competent (and a little smug) once it’s finished. If you assess my well-being mid-task, it will be down in my boots; come back when it’s finished, and I’ll be (smugly and irritatingly) happy.
To achieve longer term happiness we sometimes choose to do activities that don’t bring us joy in the moment.“No pain, no gain,” as your grandmother or your aerobics instructor may have told you. Howell points out that because his participants were college students, they might be engaged in more challenging and difficult “competence-enhancing” tasks than most of us. But hey, we all do our taxes, write difficult letters, and some of us even learned to program video recorders (back in the days when technology could bite back). There are plenty of competence-enhancing activities in everyday life that will put a dent in your momentary happiness, only to provide you with a surge of satisfaction when they’re complete. So the next time you’re facing a happiness-sapping but competence-enhancing activity – keep the end in mind!
The other thing you might want to keep in mind is Howell’s finding (which confirms work by Harry Reis of Rochester University and his colleagues back in 2000) that the happier you are to start with, the more enjoyment you will get out of your choice, friendship, and hard work moments. In other words, you don’t “fill up” on autonomy, relatedness, and competence and then find that they no longer do anything for you. They are like Vitamin C – you can have them as much as you want. Your capacity to enjoy and benefit from choice, friendship, and hard work just keeps growing.
Doing the paperwork courtesy of joshuahoffmanphoto
Feeling connected courtesy of Alyssa L. Miller
Hard work not always fun courtesy of SisterphotograPher
Howell, R. T., Chenot, D., Hill, G., & Howell, C. J. (2009). Momentary happiness: the role of psychological need satisfaction. Journal of Happiness Studies.
Reis, H. T., Sheldon, K. M., Gable, S. L., Roscoe, J., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). Daily well-being: The role of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26(4), 419.
It’s true even the best jobs have least-favourite tasks (don’t they? must ask Richard Branson when next we meet). This is where acceptance comes in. Happier people accept that these onerous tasks must be completed and just do it. Less happy people groan, moan, bitch and procrastinate, therefore giving more energy to the task, and making themselves unhappy.
Let’s all find a task we’ve been putting off and DO IT NOW!
Live Life Happy!
As a college student who is looking towards finals in december, the timing of this article was perfect for me. In my final year, I am starting to feel a very distinct notion of “senior-itis”, and some times it’s hard to find the motivation to keep going. One thing I picked up from this article, and try to reiterate in my own life, is the importance of keeping the end in mind. I think sometimes people get too bogged down in the present and but i’m not sure why? I find myself experiencing this and it having a direct influence on my motivation. I am inspired to couple my school work with tasks that I chose, and to seek some sort of balance.
I’m putting my hand up as one of the pessimistic moaners who can procrastinate and delay a task. What I find useful about this research is that it reminds me that I will feel better after I’ve done the ‘hard work’; it acknowledges that the bit in the middle may just feel hard and I may have to ‘just grind it out’. But most importantly for me this research reminds me that I need to remind myself in the midst of why I’m doing it. If there is something in it for me – if at some level, I have chosen this – then tapping into my sense of autonomy seems to help curb my moaning and self-pity and allow me to get on with the task more like an adult and less like a recalcitrant 6 year old.
I remember that exam feeling well – best of luck for dealing with it and for your exams!
I agree with you about finding other ‘freely chosen’ activities, and I think you can also find your own internal motivation in the study you’re doing, e.g. Why have you chosen these courses in particular?, What will doing well in your exams give you that’s important to you? Are there skills you will learn or knowledge you will gain that will make you feel more competent?
Kem Sheldon’s work on self-concordant goals (ones we value and freely choose) has shown that when are goals are of value to us, we work harder at them, enjoy the process of doing the work more, and are happier afterwards too.
So it’s worthwhile tapping into our own motivation, i.e. move from feeling ‘someone out there is making me do this’ to ‘this is my goal and I’m choosing to pursue it’,
Best of luck,
My challenge with doing work is getting it done in the first place. I am the world’s worst procrastinator. I always feel relief once the activity is done but I find it very difficult to give myself that extra boost to get me to start it. What ways might their be to get myself to start on an activity quicker so I can finish and experience that happiness? I hate having so much stress in my life because I keep putting this off.
many people deal with procrastination in two ways (usually doing both approaches together: 1. make the job feel smaller and more manageable i.e. thin-slicing or salami technique. Create the smallest possible step and do it; and 2. make yourself feel better for doing it. Remind yourself why you want to do it, how good you’ll feel afterwards, or create a mini-reward for doing even the smallest step.
This is one of those issues around which some people find it best to work with someone else, e.g. a coach, to have some external accountability.
I get so overwhelmed sometimes with school and work that I just want to give up even though I know how important it is that I stay motivated and keep going. Do you have any tips on how I can stay determined and keep at whatever it is I’m doing, with a positive attitude? I get so frustrated sometimes that it gives me anxiety. How can I get past all the distress I have in that moment?
I LOVE THIS ARTICLE. I think about this all the time – how discipline can lead to freedom. When I work on something that is hard for me, I sow major seeds, in Kathryn’s language.
Plus, it’s nice to see that autonomy and friendships feel good in the short- and long-term.
I think you said something really important when you said that you want to keep at whatever you’re doing ‘with a positive attitude’. We don’t do our best work when we’re anxious or terrified. Focusing on changing that state is a useful first place. Ideas for that include:
– Interrupting a spiral of negative thinking by doing something that physically reminds you to stop [some people snap an elastic band on their wrist or shout a word out 🙂 ]
– becoming aware of your thought patterns and learning to argue back with the negative ones
– reminding yourself of all the reasons that will allow you to feel better in the moment [the tough course you did well in last year, the way you persevered on a project etc].
– when people get very anxious they sometimes need to de-catastrophise – working through a worst case scenario, best case and then most likely case scenario can help put things in perspective.
These ideas are all drawn from teaching on resilience – in particular Karen Reivich’s work. “The Resilience Factor” by Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte is a great book that describes ways to build resilience – and it’s all scientific and evidence based.
There are lots of options out there and you’ll be the best judge of what works for you.
Sometimes when we feel overwhelmed it’s because we have got very good at making EVERYTHING EQUALLY IMPORTANT. That’s a great recipe for doing overwhelm. If I can’t make myself prioritise effectively in those moments a wise friend advised walking away and making a cup of tea. I drink a lot of tea and I’ve got better at working out what’s #1, #2 etc and what doesn’t even need to make it onto the list.
You are so right here. My students struggle with “thinking to the end of the task” for even simple daily assignments and responsibilities and instead engage in “short-term gain”. That’s pleasure and relationships before engagement and meaning! Schools that integrate resilience with other highly engaging and choice-oriented strengths-based work seem to be the key to addressing this. Can you share any of your ideas based on what you see in your work in schools?
Thanks! This was great fun to read.
Denise – the jury is still out on the effectiveness of the Penn resilience program.
there is some interesting work done on training teachers to teach in an autonomy supportive way – i.e. one that builds the student’s sense of choice and self-direction during the teaching. A brief training resulted in significant gchanges in their teaching and its effects on students’ autonomy.
Reeve, J., Jang, H., Carrell, D., Jeon, S., & Barch, J. (2004). Enhancing students’ engagement by increasing teachers’ autonomy support. Motivation and Emotion, 28(2), 147-169.
Reeve, J., & Jang, H. (2006). What teachers say and do to support students’ autonomy during a learning activity. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(1), 209.
thank you for your scepticism. I’m hanging on to mine in many areas of PP and am glad you’re doing the same.
As regards PRP – whose jury?
Analysing and comparing the effects of depression prevention programmes is problematic. Results are not consistent for replications of the same programme, not all studies have placebo controls, those that do are sometimes found to contain active ingredients and so deflate genuine improvements in the intervention group etc etc. The Penn program has proved itself in numerous trials – not all – and it has also shown that the level of training and supervision of program trainers significantly affects the results achieved in these programs.
Yes, experts in the area e.g. Merry et al 2005, say we are not yet at the stage when we can justify rolling out universal depression prevention in schools. However, they argue that a unversal approach is warranted given that effects for targetted and universal are similar for low and high risk groups and that implementing targetted groups is inherently difficult. However, that view is based purely on assessment of prevention of depressive disorder. The picture changes when you begin to assess the impacts of these programmes on well-being as well as depression prevention.
Positive Youth Development is an area that has led the way in assessing protective and risk factors for youth as well as positive and negative outcomes. We know that “risk and protective factors that predict problem behaviours are also important in predicting positive outcomes” Catalano, 2004, who also says “it’s likely that decreasing risk and incrasing protection is likley to affect both problems and positive outcomes”.
The power in some of these programmes may ultimately be found to be in the positive outcomes they help promote rather than in the negative outcomes they help prevent.
Thanks for your comments,
Hi Ms. Quinlan,
I am grateful that you wrote this article because it gave me motivation to keep pushing forward in my education. I am a college senior who is feeling the anticipation of graduation and graduate school applications. I have always wanted to be a psychologist (specializing in counseling) ever since I can remember. I always thought this kind of job would bring more meaning to my life because I would be able to help people. I know it is going to take some hard work to get to where I want to be, but my question is how do I know if this job is going to give me long term happiness? In this article you said after the task is done happiness can occur and last, but I am wondering if this is going to work out for me. I know this is a futuristic question that can’t be predicted, but I would like to know if you have any ideas on which jobs bring more long term happiness versus those who do not.
yes, you need to discuss your career choices with someone who knows you and can help you make those assessments. It’s not about ‘jobs that bring happines’ but the people in them wanting to be there and feeling like a good match for the job.
Amy Wrzesniewski has researched the differences in people who view their work as a calling, a career, or a job. People whose work is a calling for them tend to enjoy greater life satisfaction. Have a look at this research area.
Denise – see http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=536 for some observations on the research
The jury is probably anyone with training in psychology that understands research
A wonderful article and discussion!
– a friend was curious that their lowest VIA strength is self-control, yet when they are at their best, their self control is high and is ‘spotted’ by those around him. He realised he has self-control when he is passionate about what he’s doing (it has meaning)
– can we connect boring tasks to something meaningful, therefore link them to a self-concordant goal? I too dislike admin and taxes, however if I took a moment to consider how taxes are part of something meaningful (satisfying work), or if I find gratitude for the fact that I am in a position that I have to pay taxes, could I therefore find some new energy and enthusiasm? It still might not be fun, but something else kicks in to help me complete the task.
I hope you’re experiencing beautiful Spring weather.
I agree with your suggestion that you will get times when you do not feel like doing the work that has been assigned to you.
I look at this tasks has something I WILL do and WILL finish, as I do not see any benefit in moaning/complaining about it
first, I hadn’t realised you were the Wayne who posts such interesting research on the PP listserv. Thank you very much for all your work there – I really appreciate your input.
Re your observations on the research; I have read the report, when the data are finalised and it’s been peer reviewed let’s look at it again. These are also interim findings over a period of one year. We know that some of the effects found with PRP only kick in after one year as skills learned are implemented in more challenging situations etc. And, yes, I don’t think any programme can ever work for all people in all situations.
Re your speculation that it might be due to class sizes; interesting but John Hattie’s major meta-analysis of achievement in learning (over 15,000 studies, avaiable in book form as ‘Visible Learning”) has shown that classroom size does not play a role in achievement.
What I’m really curious about are some of the other factors than can occur in a smaller class; more time to build relatedness and connection with the teacher and with peers, and someone providing understanding, validation and caring for the student. We know from other research that these can be powerful factors.
Thanks for your ongoing interest in this area,
all the best,
When you say “It’s Official: Hard work isn’t fun,” do you mean it is never fun or that it isn’t always fun? I’d like to argue with the former interpretation. I’ve certainly had fun working hard sometimes, though I don’t expect every task to be fun.
I was wondering how do you think short-term and long-term happiness apply to someone who is say bi-polar where their mood is constantly changing? Do you think satisfying one’s need for happiness can some how balance the mood swings of someone who is bi-polar?
I have to admit that at times I am the epitome of a lazy college student. This semester I have been taking a step aerobics class and I cannot even explain the difference it has made. Not only do feel 100 times better, I rarely catch myself in a bad mood. Do you recommend other things that my friends and I can do to stay in shape and increase our positive energy?
I found this article to be very true to myself particularly because I am a procrastinator. I get a great relief from the stress that lifts when a project of difficult task has been completed. Even at times when I do find the material that I am faced with to be interesting it still somehow manages to become monotonous. Maybe those of us who procrastinate are not lazy but are more thrill seekers in a different sense. Putting off as much as we can til the last minute only to finish them all to get the collective feeling of completion and happiness that your article speaks of.
Don’t know if this will be accessible to those who aren’t Wall Street Journal subscribers, but this column details the author’s test of three popular productivity management systems: Getting Things Done (GTD), the Pomodoro Technique, and Franklin Covey’s Focus method. http://bit.ly/3KiQnI
As a lawyer and, therefore, a “trained” procrastinator, I have been interested in the change in my attraction to the idea of productivity since completing MAPP. Basically, both the idea of setting goals and ways of better getting the work done to reach them struck me as offputting until just recently. Most of my work seemed to be “just one more damn thing.” Now, as I have found my orientation changing more to being “pulled into the future” (Marty Selgiman’s phrase), I also find my desire to be more productive going up. Even hard and not intrinsically rewarding tasks seem more attractive as I am more able to see them in a big picture view of my life moving in directions I desire in a different domains.
Dave, I like the way you think.
I really enjoyed your article and discussion. As a college student I can relate to making short term sacrifices for long term goals/ happiness. I was curious on your thoughts of how the SDT relates to the peak end theory and overall happiness?
Like Kendra said a while back, I feel like I get so anxious about how difficult my work is going to be that I put it off and let my anxiety build. I am a college student and can definitely say that when I do finish a paper or something I have been working on I feel awesome, but I am beginning to become so overwhelmed due to work I have put off that I don’t even know what to do anymore. Do you have any tips on how I can stay determined and keep at whatever it is I’m doing with a positive attitude?
I think I replied to you and a couple of other posts last week but failed to click the right button.. agh! So here we go again.
Yes, I agree with you that we can find ourselves displaying a strength e.g. self-regulation or persistence, which we normally don’t display when we are using it in the service of another strengths, e.g. for love or kindness, or when the job at hand is meaningful.
I think this is a key to learning to develop our ‘lesser strengths’. What do I really care about that I coudl practice a lesser strength on? And, which of my top strengths might help me do it?
I love your comment about getting more energy by taking a step class. Exercise has been proven to help depression and well-being. You’re reminding me that I’ve been stuck at my computer too much lately and could definitely do with a well-being boost from physical exercise!
I think Amanda’s comment might help you. Thinking about why you’re doing something, what you value about it, and what purpose it will serve can all help you connect to wanting to do something, and maintain that motivation.
apologies – I had replied but somehow it hasn’t appeared.
I am not qualified to discuss bi-polar. There are therapists who incorporate positive psychology and strengths-based practices into their work. You should approach one of these people with your question.
All the best,
thanks for those links! I’m onto it…right after I do a few other things on my list….
As a former procrastination gold-medallist I agree with you. If I can connect with why I want to do something – and it has meaning for me, then I can get stuck in. But even so, sometimes we just have to grind it out, and get on to the next thing we really enjoy.