Blog #67 – Leisure & well-being part 3
By Dr. Mark Barry
Last time, we looked at research highlighting how if we spend at least some of our leisure time engaged in activities that promote meaning, then that in turn can lead to a pay-off in terms of individual well-being.
The flip-side of that coin is when we know what is likely to yield dividends for our long-term happiness, and yet consciously choose to not make time for those activities.
Consider the above statement in the simplest possible language – knowing what is likely to make you happy, but not acting on that knowledge, and instead making time for activities that we intuit or even consciously believe will do less for us in terms of happiness and well-being.
Your instant reaction might be to shake your head and wonder who could be so foolish as to live in such a way, effectively placing an artificial ceiling on their happiness. Well, according to recent research quite a lot of us live like that, including, presumably, some who might not think of the choices they make in those terms.
- Parker Schiffer and Tomi-Ann Roberts identify what they refer to as the “paradox of happiness”, directly asking the following question – “Why are we not doing what we know makes us happy?”
In their paper, published in The Journal of Positive Psychology earlier this year, they identify a tendency whereby some people are more likely to engage in passive leisure pursuits (e.g., watching television, following social media, and resting) than activities that lend themselves to flow states (e.g., exercise, creating art, and helping others), even when they recognise that the latter set of activities are likely to prove more meaningful and beneficial.
Why this disconnect? Why might someone recognise that exercising is a better way to spend time than curling up on the couch and binging on yet another box-set, yet continually opt for the latter as opposed to the former? In the plainest terms, they do so because the passive choice is easier. These activities involve less effort, and when we run the options in our mind, sometimes that will be the decisive factor, even when we know the easier option isn’t going to do very much for us in the long-run.
Part of what is going on here, according to the authors, is the recognition that, for example, active exercise is a good idea, but . . . it feels like such hard work! For many of us, it is difficult to get beyond that impression of how difficult the beneficial activity might be, and therefore we opt for less demanding leisure time activities. This is also a reflection of people’s recognition that they work hard at their jobs and therefore will resist the idea of working hard in their free time.
The authors note that this reflects flawed affective forecasting. As highlighted previously in this series, affective forecasting refers to our ability to predict the emotional impact of events in our lives. Researchers such as Dan Gilbert have reported that humans tend to be very good at predicting whether an experience will feel positive or negative, but we also tend to exhibit an ‘impact bias’, in that we over-estimate the likely depth and duration of that feeling, whether positive or negative. So, if we predict that we will enjoy an event in the future, we will most likely be proven correct, but we are not likely to enjoy it as much as we imagine before the fact an neither will those positive feelings last as long as we predict, with the same being true of how we imagine negative events will unfold.
Schiffer and Roberts suggest this may offer at least a partial explanation for why people can, on the one hand, recognise the likely long-term benefits of flow-inducing activities, and yet fail to act on those beliefs: “Perhaps inaccurate affective forecasting plays a role in our inability to engage in flow activities. When faced with a choice between a leisure activity or a high-investment flow activity, people may affectively forecast that passive leisure will be more restful, restorative, and enjoyable than a flow activity. But affective forecasting works in both the long and short-term, and because flow activities are not necessarily pleasurable in the moment, perhaps people are correct to predict that low-investment activities will be more immediately ‘fun’ and gratifying. Greater difficulties arise when we must make longer-term forecasts. Long-term happiness decisions often require sacrifice, likely making them more susceptible to impact bias.”
So, how do we overcome this tendency? As with so many of the psychological pitfalls we have highlighted in this series, the key can reside in developing an awareness around our thinking styles. While not a solution in itself, this awareness can help us devise strategies to overcome or sidestep the negative impact of flawed affective forecasting.
Among the possible approaches suggested by the authors is to “ease the physical transition into flow activities”. The logic here is that if we can make the activity seem even just a little less daunting then we might well overcome our hesitation. For exercise, they suggest, it might be useful to pack your gym bag last thing at night as opposed to looking at the empty bag in the morning and then having to convince yourself to do so. They apply the same principle to encouraging people to engage in creative activities, suggesting that they set up the required materials in advance, thus making for a smoother transition into the activity.
The authors acknowledge that more is known at this point about the tendency to choose the passive activity over the flow activity than on how to overcome that tendency. They call for further research to address this issue in the future.
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013 and is also a freelance writer.