Science shows us that working hard to achieve a goal may increase our sense of satisfaction. Plus: how to measure how happy you are.
If you’re reading Outside, you’re likely a pusher—someone who runs, climbs, kayaks, hikes, skis, or bikes far more often and intensely than many other people in your life. And while we spend lots of time considering the physical consequences of these endeavors, we don’t spend nearly as much time considering the psychological and spiritual ones. Dating back to the ancient Greek Empire, happiness, or what Aristotle called “an activity of soul…the highest good…the ultimate end,” has been a primary goal for those of us living in the Western world. So we have to ask: Do our active lifestyles make us happy? And are there things we can do to become even happier?
The definition of the word “happiness” has been the subject of a fierce battle in psychological science over the past few decades. It pits eudaimonic happiness, which deals with finding meaning and striving for self-realization, against hedonic happiness, or the attainment of positive emotions and pleasure and the avoidance of pain. But according to Acacia Parks, an associate professor of psychology at Hiram College, in Hiram, Ohio, and chief scientist at Happify, an app that claims to help users increase their happiness and life satisfaction via activities and games, the dichotomy is overdone and often altogether false. “Eudaimonia, or the kind of happiness that comes from doing meaningful things, is inextricably entwined with positive emotions,” Parks says. “How do we know we have done something good? Because it brings us a feeling of satisfaction and contentment.”
This isn’t to say that you have to run ultramarathons or climb mountains to find happiness, but you can’t just sit around eating candy and drinking beer, either. “Many positive emotions are hard won,” says Parks. “It’s not all about seeking out immediate pleasures like snorting cocaine and eating cupcakes. When it comes to enduring happiness, there are no quick fixes that last.”
Centuries ago, Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, said much the same: “The happy life is thought to be virtuous; a virtuous life requires exertion, and does not consist in amusement.”
A 2009 study published in the journal Happiness Studies lends credence to Aristotle’s thinking. Researchers from the University of Ottawa and the University of Rochester asked college students to focus over a ten-day period on increasing either meaning (for example, pursuing excellence and personal growth, practicing gratitude, showing kindness toward others, engaging in introspection) or amusement and pleasure (sleeping more, watching television, shopping, eating sweets). They found that the students who focused on pleasurable activities felt an immediate boost in happiness over the first ten days, but only those who focused on meaningful activities experienced a sustained increase over the subsequent three weeks. Pursuing meaningful activities, the researchers concluded, “was generally related to elevating experience.”
Of course, meaning lies in the eye of the beholder. For some, riding a bike across the country is an extremely meaningful journey; for others, it’s a waste of time and energy. Regardless of what activities we deem meaningful, Kennon Sheldon, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri and author of Optimal Human Being, says we’ll be happiest if they meet our primary psychological needs: autonomy, or, as Sheldon says, “doing what you want to be doing and believe in doing”; competence, or “doing something well and/or seeing improvement”; and relatedness, like “connecting to others, immersing in a community, or contributing something to the world.” Not every one of our undertakings must fulfill all three criteria, explains Sheldon, “but we should try to engage in personal projects that afford us these attributes, so that collectively, when you add up everything you do across your life, these needs are met.”
It just so happens that most athletic (and creative) endeavors promote autonomy, competence, and relatedness and include at least some element of personal growth, which is widely believed to be connected to a meaningful life. Even so, it’s important to realize that relentlessly striving to achieve excellence is not the same as happiness. “Extreme performance does not always result in extreme satisfaction,” Sheldon says.
The key to bridging the gap between performance and satisfaction may lie in the distinction between what psychologists call harmonious passion and obsessive passion. In harmonious passion, you become absorbed in an activity because you love how the activity itself makes you feel—a harmoniously passionate runner runs because she loves running and relishes the process of personal growth and improvement. In obsessive passion, you get hooked on an activity because of external rewards and recognition—an obsessively passionate runner runs because she wants to boast about her race times on social media and attain a certain body type that she thinks with attract others. Research published in the journal Psychology of Well-Being: Theory, Research, and Practice found that people who embody harmonious passion are happier, healthier, and less prone to burnout than those who display obsessive passion. In reality, most passionate people show signs of both—after all, who doesn’t enjoy a bit of praise or external validation? But, according to Sheldon, those whose pursuits are fueled mainly by harmonious passion, with motivation coming predominantly from within, tend to be the happiest.
There are also plenty of opportunities to engage in meaningful activities that have nothing to do with performance or the pursuit of excellence. “It is important to vary activities and mix things up,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at University of California Riverside and the author of The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want. Unfortunately, it’s not long before we get used to positive changes in our lives, she says, and thus the initial happiness buzz wears off. Psychologists call this “hedonic adaption,” which literally means adapting to pleasure. “That’s why it’s so important to have at least some element of novelty in life, to take on new challenges, and to be appreciative and grateful,” Lyubomirsky says. “Once you take something for granted, that’s when you’ve adapted. Gratitude is a natural antidote.”
Lyubomirsky’s research has found that in addition to regularly practicing gratitude, performing acts of kindness also increases happiness. “When you do nice things for other people,” she says, “you are engaging in something meaningful, and you feel more connected to the world at large—both of which increase happiness.”
Perhaps, then, the best pathway to lasting happiness is to take on meaningful challenges and strive toward constant self-improvement. At the same time, it’s important to remember how lucky you are to be doing what you love and, when possible, to give back to your community. Active lifestyles promote all of these things—so keep on pushing.
How to Measure Your Happiness
Ken Sheldon says the following quiz can serve as a quick gauge of happiness. He suggests taking it daily for a period of time—say, over one month—so you can see how your day-to-day activities affect your happiness scores.
Rate each of the following on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being not at all and 5 being very much.
In your life these days, to what extent do you feel…
How much do you agree with each statement below?
• I am satisfied with my life.
• The conditions of my life are excellent.
Add up your scores.
A score of 12 to 13 is neutral—anything higher than that means life is probably going pretty well. When Sheldon administers this survey to college students, their average score is 17.7. “People are generally positive,” he says. “On a scale of one to ten, when rating general happiness, the world average is a seven…but that still means there is plenty of room to improve.”