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Scientists untangle the relationship between effort and emotional payoff

In his 2004 book Authentic Happiness, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman tells the story of a lizard that won’t eat.

The lizard belonged to one of Seligman’s colleagues. No matter what it was offered — fruit, ground pork, dead flies — the lizard refused to eat. But then one day its owner tossed a newspaper down on top of a ham sandwich. The lizard pounced on the newspaper, shredded it to pieces, and devoured the sandwich beneath it.

“Lizards have evolved to stalk and pounce and shred before they eat,” Seligman writes in his book. “So essential was the exercise… to the life of the lizard that its appetite could not be awakened until [this behavior] was engaged.”

Seligman is one of the founders of the “positive psychology” movement, which aims to understand those behaviors or patterns of thinking that promote happiness or other positive mental states. The lizard anecdote, he writes, raises the question of whether there are true shortcuts to pleasure or gratification. For the lizard, the answer was no. It needed to engage in certain behaviors before it could enjoy something as essentially pleasurable as eating food.

Researchers are finding that the parts of life from which people derive the most durable and profound pleasure are often ones that require effort.

While human beings are “immensely more complex” than lizards, Seligman writes, our willingness to bypass effort in favor of “snatching up” as many easy pleasures as possible may partly explain why so many people are unhappy at a time when life has never been so comfortable and pleasure so abundant. “Our pleasures and the appetites they serve are tied by evolution to a repertoire of actions,” he writes. Without performing these actions, pleasurable rewards just don’t do much for us.

Contemporary life often prizes convenience and ease above all else; these tend to be the chief virtues of the products or services people value most. Anything that requires effort is framed as “work,” and work sucks. But researchers are finding that the parts of life from which people derive the most durable and profound pleasure are often ones that require effort.

“A lot of happiness lies in the doing, not in the having done,” says Barbara Fredrickson, a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina. Much of Fredrickson’s work has examined pleasure and positive emotion. She says that pleasure can be broken down into two overlapping categories of experience, which she and others in her field sometimes term “hedonia” and “eudaimonia.” Hedonia refers to things that provide enjoyable sensory experiences or emotions. Eudaimonia refers to experiences that “transcend” happy feelings and provide people with a sense of purpose, meaning, contribution, and interconnectedness.

Fredrickson says that, historically, there was a lot of overlap between these two categories of pleasure. The activities that provided hedonia — sex, laughter, eating — tended to go hand in hand with activities that provided eudaimonia, such as raising children, cultivating friendships, and securing food. “The hedonic piece was the springboard to the eudaimonic piece,” she says. But these days there’s often a lot less overlap. The stuff that provides an instant, effortless hit of pleasure — food, entertainment, drugs, material purchases — is no longer coupled to those grander wellsprings of well-being.

“Not every pleasure has to come with meaning or purpose,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with empty calories” — whether those take the form of a Netflix binge or a pumpkin spice latte. “But in growth and health and thriving, the eudaimonic piece is more important,” she says.

When it comes to activities that scratch this eudaimonic itch, the expenditure of time and energy seem to be core components. “When we engage in effortful activities, we do so because they reflect a deeper meaning or sense of purpose than something that is easy,” says Leaf Van Boven, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado.

Some of his research has examined the effects of spending money on material possessions as opposed to experiences, and how these different types of expenditures affect well-being. Over and over again, he and others have found that spending money on experiences — especially those that involve other people, or that change or strengthen a person’s conception of herself — makes people happier than spending money on material goods. Whether a person is making an effort to visit a new place or an old friend, “an experience is fundamentally transformative,” he says.

“It’s always tempting to take the easy way out, and to spend time and money on things that are less effortful,” he adds. “But upon reflection, people recognize that pursuing life experiences, even though that requires effort, makes them happier.”

This “upon reflection” component is important. A 2011 study in the Journal of Happiness Studies found that effortful tasks or activities may lower a person’s happiness in the moment, but these same tasks increase happiness when people look back at how they spent their time. Working on a task that a person deems worthwhile or beneficial promotes feelings of satisfaction, which in term drives up happiness, the study found. In this same vein, research from the University of Pennsylvania has found evidence that feelings of accomplishment, perseverance, and mastery — as well as the process of actively working toward a personal goal — are all associated with greater well-being. On the other hand, a 2009 study from Vanderbilt University found that an unwillingness or disinterest in expending effort in pursuit of personal rewards is common to people with depression.

The takeaway from all this research isn’t that life should be wholly consumed by toil or a constant striving for self-improvement. Everyone deserves a goodly dose of leisure or “empty calories.” But carving out time for activities or experiences that require effort — especially if they are personally meaningful or bring you together with other people — seems to be an essential component of a happy life.