Long Struggles Make Accomplishments Sweeter, Science Says
Thanks to media profiles of fresh-faced whiz kids and the self-curation of friends on Facebook, it can feel like everyone else is speeding towards their life goals at an impressive pace. Your path, meanwhile, feels never-ending--full of twists, turns and time-consuming setbacks. Which, let's be honest, can sometimes be pretty depressing.
But if the slow pace of progress towards your goals has you down lately, recent research out of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business is definitely for you. The series of studies from doctoral student Nadav Klein and behavioral science professor Ayelet Fishbach looked into the question of how the speed with which we reach our goals impacts our enjoyment when we finally attain them. A long road to travel, they found, can actually lead to a sweeter sense of accomplishment.
Long Roads Make for HappyEndings
Through a series of studies, the research team found that people are pretty attached to what the study authors terms their "goal script." Basically, we have pre-conceived ideas of how big accomplishments are supposed to go. So we generally expect the path to marriage, for example, to start off with a first date, proceed through years of dating, and culminate with someone getting down on one knee and a whole lot of wedding planning. When events get ahead of the scripts we hold for them (say your romantic other half pops the question after knowing you only a few months), our sense of happiness is less than when things follow the progression we expect.
These sort of internal scripts don't just inform our personal lives but also affect how we expect our careers to progress and how much we enjoy professional accomplishments. In one study, for instance, the researchers had participants apply for an internship, informing some of the results with an official letter and others with an earlier unofficial computer notification that was later followed by the formal letter.
Which scenario made the would-be interns happier? "At no point in time did early information make participants as happy as the scripted attainment information," the authors write. Getting good news surprisingly early, in other words, makes us less happy than we pursue the long path of struggle we expect. "We basically show that people want to feel good at the right time," Fishbach commented. (Though the authors note that for truly phenomenal good news such as, say, winning the lottery, the intensity of initial joy would probably mute this effect.)
There's not too much you can do with this information--if you could better control the speed and outcome of your entrepreneurial efforts you'd almost certainly be doing it already--except, of course, to take comfort in it. Your path to business success may seem long, but at least you know science says you'll get greater enjoyment out of your eventual accomplishments than that annoying overnight sensation you recently read about.
JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.