The path to happiness and the path to being an expert overlap.
Here’s the problem though: research shows that you don’t usually do what really brings you joy or makes you an expert — you do what is easy.
Studies have found that American teenagers are two and a half times more likely to experience elevated enjoyment when engaged in a hobby than when watching TV, and three times more likely when playing a sport. And yet here’s the paradox: These same teenagers spend four times as many hours watching TV as they do engaging in sports or hobbies. So what gives? Or, as psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi put it more eloquently, “Why would we spend four times more time doing something that has less than half the chance of making us feel good?” The answer is that we are drawn—powerfully, magnetically—to those things that are easy, convenient, and habitual, and it is incredibly difficult to overcome this inertia. Active leisure is more enjoyable, but it almost always requires more initial effort—getting the bike out of the garage, driving to the museum, tuning the guitar, and so on.
Sitting on the couch watching TV does not make you happy:
“…heavy TV viewers, and in particular those with significant opportunity cost of time, report lower life satisfaction. Long TV hours are also linked to higher material aspirations and anxiety.”
How is that possible? You spend a lot more time in high-challenge, high-skill situations that encourage flow states during work hours. You’re more likely to feel apathy during leisure time at home.
Via Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness:
…the study found that while at work (relative to home/leisure), these individuals spent a great deal more time in high-challenge, high-skill situations (that is, those situations that foster flow) and less time in low-skill, low-challenge situations. Indeed, they were inclined to experience a sense of efficacy and self-confidence during work hours but to experience apathy at home. However, when probed about what they’d rather be doing, these participants uniformly stated that they’d rather be doing something else when working and that they preferred to continue what they were doing when at leisure.
Thinking and working can beat sad feelings. But you avoid those because they take effort.
You spend up to 8 minutes of every hour daydreaming. Your mind will probably wander for 13% of the time it takes you to read this post. Some of us spend 30-40% of our time daydreaming.
Do you remember what the previous paragraph was about? It’s OK, I’m not offended. Chances are that your mind will wander for up to eight minutes for every hour that you spend reading this book. About 13 percent of the time that people spend reading is spent not reading, but daydreaming or mind-wandering. But reading, by comparison to other things we do, isn’t so badly affected by daydreaming. Some estimates put the average amount of time spent daydreaming at 30 to 40 percent.
Problem is, a wandering mind is not a happy mind:
“Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness,” Killingsworth says. “In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.” …subjects’ mind-wandering was generally the cause, not the consequence, of their unhappiness.
Your default is to do what is easy, but you’re happier when challenged. You need to fight your instincts.
What should you be doing?
“Signature strengths” are the things you are uniquely talented at and using them brings you joy. People who deliberately exercised their signature strengths on a daily basis became significantly happier for months.
When 577 volunteers were encouraged to pick one of their signature strengths and use it in a new way each day for a week, they became significantly happier and less depressed than control groups. And these benefits lasted: Even after the experiment was over, their levels of happiness remained heightened a full month later. Studies have shown that the more you use your signature strengths in daily life, the happier you become.
But isn’t this a lot of hard work?
But maybe you’re afraid of failure. This is why you do what is easy and why your instinct is to play it safe. Fear of failure is one of the most powerful feelings.
In a surprising 2008 study, researchers at the University of Bath, UK, found that the fear of failure drives consumers far more than the promise of success; the latter oddly tends to paralyze us, while the former spurs us on (and pries open our wallets). In fact, as the study found, the most powerful persuader of all was giving consumers a glimpse of some future “feared self.”
Thinking about what happens to you in terms of your self-esteem will crush you — look at life as growing and learning:
“A key to alleviating depression is fostering a shift from self-worth goals to learning goals and from the beliefs underlying self-worth goals to the opposite beliefs.”
When challenged, focus on “getting better” — not doing well or looking good. Get-better goals increase motivation, make tasks more interesting and replenish energy.
Get-better goals, on the other hand, are practically bulletproof. When we think about what we are doing in terms of learning and mastering, accepting that we may make some mistakes along the way, we stay motivated despite the setbacks that might occur…
But what is the end goal you should focus on? Is there an easy way to think about what you should be heading toward?
Yes. Think about the best possible version of yourself and move toward that.
This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.
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