Most theorists boil human behavior down to a pursuit of pleasure. Yet all of us engage in mundane, even unpleasant activities. It’s called being an adult, right? Happy Monday!

But Maxime Taquet, PhD at the Computational Radiology Laboratory at Boston Children’s Hospital (who by day helps conduct advanced brain imaging in children with neurologic conditions) wondered why. If we’re such pleasure-seekers, how do we muster the will to do our taxes or vacuum the house?

Taquet, with Jordi Quoidbach, PhD, of the Department of Economics and Business at the University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, and other colleagues developed a smartphone app to track the activities and moods of more than 28,000 French-speaking people for an average of 27 days. At random times during the day, the app asked users to rate their current mood on a scale of 0 to 100 and indicate what they were doing at that moment from a list of options.

As reported recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, study participants were more likely to start useful, but mood-dampening activities when feeling good, and embark on mood-increasing activities, like socializing with friends, when they felt bad.

“Using large-scale data, we showed how our emotions shape our behavior and explain the trade-offs us humans make in our daily lives to secure our long-term happiness,” Taquet says.

Mood and time management

Granted, some activities were dictated more by time of the day or day of the week than by mood. Most of us go to work Monday morning because we have to. We cook at 6 pm so we can have dinner. The researchers used mathematical models to account for these kinds of variables.

But mood clearly held sway over certain activities. It better predicted eating and childcare than did day of the week. It better predicted going out into nature, leisure activities and cultural pursuits than did time of day. Mood also better predicted playing sports, chatting and drinking (not necessarily all at once) than either day or time.

Hedonic flexibility

Overall, the study indicates that we parse out our happiness capital. We invest in it when levels are low, and spend it when it’s abundant to get stuff done. Taquet and colleagues call this swing between hedonism and deferred gratification “hedonic flexibility.”

Perhaps evolution has pushed us in this pragmatic direction. “It could well be that those who are best able to achieve a healthy balance between the pleasurable and unpleasant are more likely to lead happier, more productive lives,” says James Gross, PhD, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and senior investigator on the study.

Though the app was developed for research purposes, Taquet hopes to further validate it and make it publicly available as a “self-management” tool. By helping people choose activities based on their mood, he believes it could help people achieve more lasting happiness.

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