We’re more likely to take on unpleasant but necessary tasks—taxes, bills, and housework—when in a good mood, new research shows.
According to the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a person in a bad mood is more likely to choose pleasurable activities as a way to feel better.
“These findings clarify how emotions shape behavior and may explain how humans trade off short-term happiness for long-term welfare,” says James Gross, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. “Overcoming such trade-offs might be critical for our personal well-being and our survival as a species.”
60,000 people and their moods
For their study, Gross and his fellow researchers randomly surveyed the activities and moods of more than 60,000 people over an average of 27 days. The experiment involved people responding on a smartphone app.
The researchers found that study participants chose pleasurable activities when they were feeling down or out of sorts. And, people chose to perform disagreeable but necessary activities when they were feeling upbeat.
Gross and his coauthors call this dynamic “hedonic flexibility.” Simply, people tend to use their good mood as a resource, allowing them to work on challenges, thus delaying short-term gratification for long-term benefits. Examples of such benefits include regular sleep, stable employment, and a clean, well-organized personal environment—all of which are linked to good mental and physical health, the researchers note.
The study showed that “hedonic flexibility” was consistently practiced in a range of daily choices made by respondents, such as when an upbeat mood helps one endure a long line at, say, the post office or grocery.
Try the calculator, wait for the app
Gross and his colleagues believe the smartphone app used in the research might one day prove useful as a “self-management” tool for people to work on their “to-do” lists based on their existing moods. Once the app is fully tested, the goal is to make it available for public download.
Until then, the researchers have built an online calculator that shows how mood and emotions shape the way people choose to spend their time. They say it may help people get the most value and benefit out of their emotions.
Gross suggests that the ability of people to leverage a “good” mood to complete important but unpleasant tasks and use a “bad” mood to experience pleasurable activities may hold the key to happiness and well-being.
“It could well be that those who are best able to achieve a healthy balance between the pleasurable and unpleasant are more likely to lead happier, more productive lives,” he says.
Gross says the research confirms how human emotions shape behavior and may help persons become less focused on short-term pleasure and more centered on long-term stability. For instance, the next time someone is in a great mood, it might be time to consider a chore like cleaning out the garage or something else that one has procrastinated on.
Coauthors of the study are from Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School and Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain.
Source: Stanford University