Activation Energy: How It Keeps Happiness at a Distance

How to find the oomph to do some of the most gratifying things in life.

Posted Jul 10, 2016

One of my all-time favorite studies surveyed a sample of London residents and simply asked them to indicate which major tourist attractions and landmarks they’ve been to in their city. A sample of tourists briefly visiting London was also polled. It turns out, even after only a few days, the tourists were more likely to have visited the major attractions than were the long-term residents!

ktylerconk via Flickr.com
Source: ktylerconk via Flickr.com

Why? Those who perceived having all the time in the world to go to Westminster Abbey or Buckingham Palace figured they could always just do it later. Tourists didn’t have that luxury. They had to act, so they did.

What the residents lacked was activation energy. This is actually a term used by chemists to describe the minimum amount of energy required to initiate a chemical reaction, but it’s been adapted by psychologists to describe the motivation required to begin a task. When there are too many hurdles in place, and when our motivation isn’t sufficient to overcome those hurdles, we’ll choose something easier to do. In the case of the tourists, time pressure gave them the motivation that the residents lacked.

What’s Wrong with This?

Many of the things that require activation energy are highly engaging and rewarding.

I live about a thirty-minute drive from a popular attraction: Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. When the weekend comes and the weather is especially beautiful, the idea often presents itself: I should go for a hike! Then the obstacles arise. I have to find my boots, pack some supplies, figure out which hike I want to do, and drive all the way out there. Sigh. It’s easier to opt for something more passive: web-surfing or Netflix, for instance, and tell myself I can try again next weekend. Because I lacked the energy to initiate action, I surely missed out on a truly gratifying and memorable experience.

What Can We Do?

As Shawn Achor describes in The Happiness Advantage, reduce the amount of activation energy required to enact a positive behavior. If I’d had my boots and daypack ready and in view, and if I knew which hike I'd be seeking out, several steps in the process would be eliminated and I’d be more likely to follow through with my plan. So many of the most engaging experiences in life, those that promote flow, challenge, and growth, take some initiative to start up. And when that is the case, we might just default to the easy, passive, and generally inferior activity instead.

Give yourself an extra boost of motivation by essentially pretending to be a tourist. Convince yourself that time is scarce. Or ask yourself, “if I had to move away from this area soon, what would be on my to-do list?” The things that rise to the top may surprise you. And this altered perspective may be just the kick in the pants you needed to take action!

Finally, make a date with someone else. It’s easy to back out of something, be it a hike, trip to the gym, or a free concert in the park, if you have no accountability.

Seldom do we set out to be intentionally idle or passive with our free time. But when Sunday night rolls around and we have little to show for ourselves besides a dent in the couch, a lack of activation energy might just be the silent culprit. Fight back!