What the Happiness Paradox Means for Your Daily Joy

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Suppose you’re looking ahead to your evenings as a chance to catch up on the latest streaming series or televised sport. Nothing looks more attractive to you than your couch. In the back of your mind, though, runs the possibility of using that time to work on a crossword puzzle or devote the time to figuring out how to complete the home craft project that is languishing somewhere in the back of a closet. That project so far has become so complicated that it will take you at least an hour of watching instructional videos to complete it. You know that you’d feel proud of yourself if you got it done. However, the couch’s allure becomes too hard to resist, and so the project will have to languish some more.

The Happiness Paradox, and Where It Comes From

According to California State University’s Max Alberhasky and University of Texas Austin’s Raj Raghunathan (2023), your plight is a prime example of what’s called the “happiness paradox.” Simply stated, this is the tendency for people to choose a leisure activity that requires very little effort even though they know that a true mood boost would come from honing and applying their skills. A large amount of prior evidence supports the first piece of the paradox, which is that, when given a choice, people would rather engage in passive rather than active pursuits during their leisure time. This “aversion” to expending effort is due to a combination of “time-inconsistency” and “impulsivity.” Put somewhat differently, when you’re looking at how to spend your leisure time right in the moment, you’re less likely to consider the long-term consequences of your decision. It’s an irrational choice because, as the authors note from previous research, what will really make you happier is being busy in an activity that allows you to expand and strengthen your skills.

Why would becoming involved in a more demanding leisure activity benefit your happiness? The answer to this question comes from the idea of “flow,” introduced in the early days of positive psychology by the late Claremont Graduate University’s Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi. When you’re using your abilities to their optimum levels, you’ll feel an inner surge of happiness that propels you through a challenging task. You won’t feel that way if you just veg out or do the minimum required to get a particular job done.

Putting the Happiness Paradox Under the Microscope

The two parts of the happiness paradox are that (1) people choose low-skill activities for their leisure pursuits, but (2) if they applied themselves harder, they’d be happier. To test these components, the Cal State–U. Texas researchers conducted a series of five experiments, both online and in the lab, in which participants (both undergrad and adult online) either chose a type of task (hard or easy) or had their happiness measured after completing a task varying in difficulty.

Rather than assume that flow would automatically occur when participants engaged in those more demanding tasks, the authors took into account the role of expertise. Theoretically, a high-skill activity could be frustrating for someone who is completely inept or is at a very beginning level. Think about how much you would enjoy having to put together an unassembled kit of furniture if you couldn’t even use a screwdriver. In contrast, someone with pretty decent carpentry skills would find the challenge both fun and rewarding (the authors refer to this as the IKEA effect).

In one experiment conducted in the lab, undergraduates participated in either the high-skill activity of playing the online game “2048” (where you build chains of sums) versus the low-skill activity of playing “Plinko” (a game based solely on luck). Participants playing the 2048 game reported being happier and finding more meaning in the activity than did the Plinko players.

Another experiment used a writing task to elicit the feelings that participants had about high-skill activities in which they self-rated themselves as experts versus novices prior to entering into a hard versus easy task. The findings from this experiment suggested a possible explanation for the low-skill activity choices that people tend to make. In the words of the authors, “unless one is an expert, high-skill activities provide no immediate hedonic benefit (although they may provide more meaningful long-term benefits) while requiring significantly greater effort for successful participation” (p. 2097). This creates a Catch-22. To get the most enjoyment out of an activity, you have to invest some up-front time to reach a certain level of expertise. The only way to mobilize the energy you’ll need to get that mood boost is to consider that, in the long run, you will derive more meaning from it.

Using the Happiness Paradox to Your Advantage

You now know why the couch looks so inviting compared to the halfway-done home project that just seems like it will be too hard and, hence, not very hedonic. You can only pull yourself away from what will ultimately be a less beneficial choice if you project into the future and think about how good you’ll feel when it’s done and you can stand back and admire your work.

If this is too much pie-in-the-sky thinking, there are other options you can explore. One is to pair up what seems like it will be an unpleasant way to spend your time with little rewards for yourself as you gain each new level of mastery. Second, toward this end, you can also break the activity down into what can be more manageable chunks. Maybe you stopped working on that project because you expected success to come too soon or because you made what seemed like a fatal mistake. Looking more realistically at your abilities, and then seeking guidance (online or from an expert), you can now feel better about the whole enterprise. Ideally, you can peel back to where you were before making the mistake, or just face the fact that you’ll have to restart from scratch.

Happiness Essential Reads

The Alberhasky and Raghunathan findings don’t mean that you have to abandon your couch all the time when you’ve got a choice about how to use your leisure time. Instead, the authors recommend that you put some variety into your choices. If you had a particularly tough week, either with managing your family or responsibilities at work, it’s fine to take a break and unwind. You don’t even need to feel guilty about that occasional use of “me-time.”

To sum up, even if at first you don’t really feel you have the energy or expertise, putting some effort into the way you choose to spend your time is what ultimately will give you the greatest benefit. Not only will you feel happier but you’ll also have allowed yourself to fulfill your greatest inner potential.

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