So You’re in a Good Mood—Now What?

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A new study finds we’re more likely to work and do chores when we’re happy, saving the fun stuff for when we’re spent.

By Nathan Collins

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(Photo: George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

Say you’re in a good mood. What are you going to do an hour from now? On the surface it might not seem like such an important question, but, in fact, how we choose to spend our time is one of the most important issues in our day-to-day lives. Now, researchers have a rough answer, based on observations of 28,000 people going about their daily lives: People are more likely to do the stuff they don’t like when they’re happier, and tend to save more entertaining activities for when they’re down.

At the heart of the new research is something called the hedonic principle, the idea that we’ll do things that bring pleasure and avoid pain. On one level, that’s completely obvious or even tautological, but there’s a problem: “Although widely supported in the laboratory, the hedonic principle, without further specification, does not explain much of people’s everyday behavior: if we always try to improve our moods, when are we motivated to do the dishes, wait in line at the post office, or even go to work?” Maxime Taquet, Jordi Quoidbach, and their colleagues write in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

To get a better handle on the matter, the researchers propose three different modifications to the hedonic principle. First, it might apply only when particular opportunities to seek pleasure or avoid pain arise, in which case mood shouldn’t affect our decisions. (Spoiler alert: That hypothesis is wrong.) Second, it might apply when our moods are especially salient—that is, when we feel especially good or bad, in which case we should do what feels good mainly when we feel very happy or very sad. Third, perhaps we’re motivated by short- and long-term goals, and our moods serve to prioritize those goals.

According to that third hypothesis, called the “hedonic flexibility hypothesis” (and first proposed by economist Herbert Simon 49 years ago), we’re more likely to focus on long-term goals like earning a living when we’re happier, and more likely to pursue short-term gains like going to the movies when we’re sadder.

To test those theories, the team polled 28,212 people at random times over the course of 27 days. Each time they were polled, participants could rate their mood on a scale from zero to 100, and then report what activity they were currently engaged in, choosing from 25 options including work, grooming, chatting, and television. (You can take a version of the survey here.)

Consistent with the hedonic flexibility hypothesis—and inconsistent with the others—people were more likely to perform the less pleasant tasks, including working, when they were happier. Mood had the strongest impact on the probability of playing sports, going out in nature, working, and simply waiting. That is, a 10-point decrease in mood increased the odds a person was playing sports or out in nature by 13 percent and 9 percent, respectively, while a mood increase of 10 points increased the odds of working and waiting by 5 and 6 percent.

“People seek mood-enhancing activities when they feel bad and engage in unpleasant activities that might promise longer-term payoff when they feel good.”

Of course, mood is not the sole determinant of what we’re doing, or even the most important one in all cases. In particular, whether a person is at work, commuting, or sleeping is largely a function of the day of the week and the time of day. On the other hand, whether a person was engaged in sports, chatting, and drinking had more to do with mood than the day or time.

“Our findings demonstrate that people’s everyday decisions regarding which activities to undertake are directly linked to how they feel and follow a remarkably consistent pattern,” the team writes. “People seek mood-enhancing activities when they feel bad and engage in unpleasant activities that might promise longer-term payoff when they feel good.”

The mood study is not the only one in recent weeks to take a fresh look at predicting our behavior. Earlier this week, a team led by Vedran Sekara analyzed how the social networks of 1,000 undergraduate students change on a minute-to-minute basis. Usually, studies of social networks emphasize long-term connections to friends, work colleagues, and the like, while obscuring the details of our contacts over the course of the day. To study those contacts, Sekara and his team outfitted students with bluetooth-aware smartphone applications that recorded when two participants were within 10 meters of each other, along with GPS data to identify where those participants were. Aggregating contacts over the course of a day produced the typical “hairball” of contacts—a mess of interconnections among people, the meaning of which is difficult to determine.

Aggregating the data over the course of five minutes, however, produced a much clearer picture of how people interact, the team reports in PNAS. First, gatherings tended to be somewhat fluid, with a core of people present over the course of many similar meetings and a periphery that showed up irregularly. Second, those cores could overlap, meaning a core that regularly gathered on campus in the morning might overlap with a different core that typically met off campus on Friday nights.

In other words, by looking at how social contacts change minute-by-minute, Sekara and his colleagues could tell which students were in class or at a party, as well as predict with decent accuracy when and where a core would next get together—something that network scientists have found surprisingly difficult to do.

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