Research utilizing a new smartphone application finds that people tend to mix up pleasurable with necessary but not-so-pleasurable activities in response to their moods.
Specifically, the model shows that people were more likely to engage in mood-increasing activities such as playing a sport when they felt bad, and engage in useful, but mood-decreasing activities such as doing housework when they felt good.
The new app was designed by Dr. Maxime Taquet, a research fellow at the Boston Children’s Hospital to provide insight on the true sources of motivation. Taquet and colleagues used the app to monitor in real-time the activities and moods of over 28,000 people.
The team found that, rather than following the pleasure or hedonic principle, people’s choices of activities instead consistently followed a hedonic flexibility principle.
The findings help to clarify how hedonic considerations shape human behavior. They may also explain how humans overcome the allure of short-term gains in happiness to maximize their long-term welfare.
Said Taquet, “The decisions we make every day about how to invest our time have important personal and societal consequences. Most theories of motivation propose that our daily choices of activities aim to maximize our positive state of mind, but have so far failed to explain when people decide to engage in unpleasant yet necessary activities.
“Using large-scale data, we showed how our emotions shape our behavior and explain the trade-offs us humans make in our daily lives to secure our long-term happiness.”
Developing the smartphone app was critical as it allowed the capture of huge amounts of data. This approach helped researchers obtain a much more realistic idea of the choices people are routinely making in the real-world in their day-to-day lives.
As part of the study, participants were presented with questionnaires via the app at random times throughout the day. They were asked to rate their current mood on a scale of 0 (very unhappy) to 100 (very happy) and to report what they were doing from a standard list of choices.
The model revealed that people’s future decisions to engage in one activity rather than another are related to how they currently feel. Secondly, the interplay between mood and choices of activity followed a very specific pattern.
When participants were in a bad mood, they were more likely to later engage in activities that tended to subsequently boost their mood.
For example, if people’s current mood decreased by 10 points, they were more likely to later engage in things like sport, going out into nature, and chatting. All of these activities were associated with a subsequent increase in mood.
By contrast, if people’s current mood was rather high, they were more likely to later engage in unpleasant (but necessary) activities, such as housework, commuting, or working.
Taquet added, “Deciding what to do with one’s time is one of the most fundamental choices humans face every day — a choice that has crucial consequences both for individuals and society at large.
“Our findings demonstrate that people’s everyday decisions regarding which activities to undertake are directly linked to how they feel and follow a remarkably consistent pattern. People seek mood enhancing activities when they feel bad and engage in unpleasant activities that might promise longer-term payoff when they feel good.”
The research appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and was carried out in collaboration with researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Imperial College in London and Stanford University.