The Science of Willpower

Secrets for self-control without suffering

A Question to Help Procrastinators, Hedonists, and Reality TV Addicts

If you want to be happier, trade pleasure for meaning.

Students in my "Science of Willpower" course pick a willpower challenge to focus on for the class. Over the last few years, one choice has become surprisingly common: watching less reality television. People feel addicted to shows that seem fun, but ultimately leave them unsatisfied.

So I've been thinking about what makes tv so appealing, and tiny steps (or reframes) that can help people choose another way to spend their free time. Here's one:

Redefine Happiness.

When you ask people to rate how happy different activities make them, the answers often suggest we are a society of sloths. For example, watching TV rates far higher than sex, work, and spending time with children.

But that picture shifts if you ask people not how pleasurable activities are, but how meaningful or worthwhile they are. Then work hits the top of the list, along with time with family.

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If you equate happiness with pleasure, you seek pleasant distractions and indulgences. But happiness research shows this isn't the best route to actually feeling happy. Science shows that people who seek pleasure at the expense of other forms of happiness end up the least happy, and those who equate happiness with meaning end up happier in the long run.

If you want to be happier, a little hard work and temporary stress may be your best bet, because of how they add up to meaning. For example, researchers at San Francisco State University have shown that the happiest people are those who regularly engage in behaviors that temporarily increase stress, such as learning a new skill and physical exercise. The greatest increase in daily happiness came when people engaged in goal-directed tasks that were personally meaningful.

When you procrastinate, you are almost certainly asking and answering a question in your head: "What will be more pleasurable: Doing [the procrastinated task] or doing [the more indulgent task]?"

Happiness research suggests this is the wrong question to ask. You'll end up happier if you ask the question, "What will be more meaningful?"

Kelly McGonigal is a psychologist at Stanford University. Her latest book, which is full of strategies for going after what you really want, is The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.

Studies:

1. White & Dolan (2009). Accounting for the richness of daily activities. Psychological Science, 20, 1000-8.
2. Howell et al. (2009). Momentary happiness: the role of psuchological need satisfaction. Journal of Happiness Studies, 12, 1-15.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is a health psychologist at Stanford University.

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