Despite the common assumption that happiness is to be found in securing money or material items, the research is pretty clear that such gratification is short-lived. After providing an initial boost, material acquisitions tend to lose their impact quickly (see Brickman & Campbell, 1971, for their seminal work on hedonic adaptation, e.g., how people get quickly used to new circumstances).
What does promote a more lasting type of happiness is when people engage in intentional activities that create “flow” – a state of mind produced by a certain investment of energy, skill, and challenge (Csikszentmihalyi,1997, 1999). And yet, because flow activities require initial effort, we tend to lean towards more passive activities, even though these experiences are less likely to add up to a happy life.
Schiffer and Roberts (2018) found in a recent study that, even though people know that “effortful” flow activities facilitate long-term happiness better than passive ones, they still engage in passive leisure more often on a weekly basis.
According to their research, the reason for this “paradox” has to do with affective forecasting, the process of predicting how an event will emotionally affect one in the future. In particular, the researchers found that people predict flow tasks to be too daunting to initiate, which causes them to not engage in such tasks.
On the other hand, people perceive passive leisure as more enjoyable, requiring less activation effort. Such affective forecasting is inaccurate, given that true enjoyment (in a longer-term context) results from activities that require psychic investment and that facilitate growth.
What’s the take away here? Don’t confuse short-term pleasure (passive leisure) with longer term enjoyment and life satisfaction. Mindless hedonism only goes so far. It may be worth it to hold off on some of the instant gratification behaviors (checking social media?) in order to engage in happiness-lasting activities, even if they require start-up energy. It’s okay to work a little for true happiness.
A rehab center outside of Seattle called reSTART offers treatment programs for those addicted to devices and the instant gratification of online gaming and virtual reality. Treatment includes, in addition to therapy, time in nature, exercise, life skills such as cooking, laundry, and cleaning, and genuine recreational and social activities.