Often, I hear people repeat the phrase, “Life is a journey, you have to enjoy the ride.” I completely agree that it is important to enjoy the things you do each day. If you want to set up your life so that you can enjoy as many of the moments as possible, though, are there particular experiences you ought to strive for?
This issue was addressed in an interesting paper by Sami Abuhamdeh and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the March, 2012 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
The starting point for this paper is the observation that you perform activities for different reasons. Extrinsically motivated activities are done because there is some goal that they achieve. A student might go to a lecture, for example, because she has to go in order to get credit for the class. Intrinsically motivated activities are done because there is something inherently rewarding about doing them.
The first study in this paper examined an intrinsically motivated activity—playing chess. Most chess players play the game, because they enjoy it. The researchers tracked 87 male chess players using a chess website over a 2-week period. On average, players played about 16 games in that period. After each game, the players rated their enjoyment of the game.
Two main factors influenced players’ enjoyment of the games they played. Games that they felt were challenging were enjoyed more than games that were easy. Games in which a player felt he played well were enjoyed more than games in which a player felt he did not play well.
This study suggests that people find activities particularly rewarding when they are challenged and engaged.
Of course, this result might just reflect something about chess players. Perhaps the people who gravitate to chess are ones that enjoy a challenge. So, in a second study over a thousand people were tracked for a week at a time. Participants wore a watched that beeped at random times of the day. When it beeped, participants were supposed to fill out a survey about what they were doing, why they were doing it, how much they enjoyed it, and they answered questions about whether the activity was challenging and whether they were performing well.
There are two nice aspects of this method. First, the researchers were able to sample a large number of activities. Second, some of these activities were being done for extrinsic reasons (the participant had to do them) and others were being done for intrinsic reasons (the participant wanted to do them).
An interesting pattern emerged. First, people generally enjoyed intrinsically motivated activities more than extrinsically motivated activities. For all activities, participants enjoyed them more when they thought they were doing them well than when they thought they were doing them poorly. However, the results for challenging tasks depended on the reason for doing them. For intrinsically motivated tasks (like playing chess or doing a sport) the activity was more fun when it was challenging than when it was not. For extrinsically motivated tasks (like housework or an exam) the activity was more fun when it was easy than when it was challenging.
So, what can you do if you want to enjoy life’s journey?
First, try to focus your life on activities you do because there is something about them you enjoy. Even when there are things you technically ‘have’ to do (like going to school or going to work), you can try to find elements of them that are inherently enjoyable.
Second, find ways to challenge yourself. The more that you are engaged with your world, the more you will enjoy it. Don’t take the easy road through life. Not only will you achieve more, you’ll have a better time doing it.