Life, like business, is about making decisions and dealing with the consequences.

This article is based on research by Jordi Quoidbach

Should you cook a healthy meal, or order a pizza delivery? Study for an extra hour, or relax in front of the TV? Read an important but complex report, or check your Twitter feed?

Looked at objectively, there is a clear “good” option to choose in each of these cases. So why don’t we always do what’s right? What motivates us to behave as we do?

Esade Associate Professor Jordi Quoidbach, along with Yoko Sugitani (Sophia University), James J. Gross (Stanford University), Maxime Taquet (Harvard Medical School) and Satoshi Akutsu (Hitotsubashi University Business School) investigated how our emotions drive our decision-making.

In their joint paper published in Motivation and Emotion, they look at how affective considerations – positive or negative emotional states – impact on our actions.

People tend to engage in pleasure-enhancing activities when they feel bad

They discovered that across the cultures studied (Japan and America), people tend to engage in pleasure-enhancing activities when they feel bad; whereas they tend to engage in less immediately rewarding behaviours, that might lead to longer-term payoffs, when they feel good.

They call this the hedonic flexibility principle.

Short-term pleasure vs long-term progress

Opportunities to indulge in short-term pleasure are all around us, from snacking to socialising. But we know that they come at a cost, usually in the form of preventing us progressing toward a longer-term goal that will perhaps deliver even greater pleasure in terms of better health, business success, or personal growth.

Quoidbach and his co-authors note: “Human beings spend about 25% of their time every day experiencing some form of conflict between choosing to do something that makes them feel happy in the moment, or something that will make them feel happy in the future."

Evidence suggests that our emotional states guide us through these trade-offs, with negative moods driving us to seek solace in immediate gratification, and positive moods empowering us to prioritise future payoffs.

Instant gratificaiton
Negative moods drive us to seek solace in immediate gratification (Photo: Alessandro Appetiti/Twenty20)

Feeling bad motivates us to engage in “mood repair” behaviour: eating a tub of ice cream after an argument with our romantic partner, drinking alcohol when we’re stressed, or treating ourselves to some expensive “retail therapy” if we’ve had a bad week at work.

Conversely, research has shown that even children are more capable of delaying gratification in return for a greater reward, if they are already in a happy mood.

The bad news is that mood repair behaviour is not restricted to a single instant. The lower people’s moods are in a given moment, the higher the probability that they engage in a pleasant activity a few hours later, and vice versa.

Quoidbach and his co-authors found that the same applied to social interactions: “People are more likely to engage in pleasant social relationships (e.g., talking to their best friend) when they feel bad, and to engage in social interactions that tend to be less immediately rewarding (e.g., talking to a stranger) when they feel good."

Evolved to prioritise

This behaviour may have evolved to help us prioritise. "The key idea is that when in a negative emotional state, people’s priority shifts towards getting into a positive emotional state,” write the researchers.

“But when in a positive emotional state, people’s priority shifts towards taking care of relatively unpleasant tasks that might be important for their long-term well-being."

Although different individuals, and even different cultures, may have different ideas regarding what constitutes a pleasant or unpleasant activity, the overall dynamic that unites affect and decision-making is common to everyone.

This is supported by results from the research group, which look at links between emotional states and everyday choices of activity in two very different cultures: Japan and America.

Understanding what drives our motivations and decision-making mechanisms could help us make better choices

Although they found some cultural variation in the kinds of activities that each culture found enjoyable, both showed very similar tendencies to engage in pleasurable activities when feeling bad, and pleasure-decreasing activities (with a promise of longer-term payoff) when they feel good.

Crucially, the study looked at what people actually did later – rather than what they said they thought they would do – which is not always the same.

Your motivation to make better decisions

Our decisions shape our lives, our careers, our businesses and our society. Understanding what drives our motivations and decision-making mechanisms could help us make better choices.

Knowing that inducing a positive affective state (a good mood) by doing something pleasurable now might give us the emotional resources to later tackle something with longer-term rewards could help us plan our activities and respond appropriately to changing circumstances.

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