Pursuit of Happiness

Society has created an obsession with goals. Whether you are trying to lose weight, educate yourself or learn a new skill, the first method that your trainers or educators will often attempt to persuade you by is an image of the best possible version of yourself. The purpose of this, from a marketing perspective, is the opportunity to entice new customers with the optimism that this vision could become reality.

In a recent paper (When Thinking about Goals Undermines Goal Pursuit – July 2012) Ayelet Fishbach (University of Chicago) and Jinhee Choi (Korea Business School) attempt to demonstrate that intense focus on an activity can boost your initial willpower to achieve your goals but correspondingly you will have a less positive experience of it and this negative experience will therefore increase the likelihood of failure.

Fishbach and Choi based their research on four separate experiments. For the first experiment, they studied volunteers at a university gym in order to demonstrate that the performance of gym users suffers when they focus on the benefits of their workout as opposed to the experience itself. To do this, they invited half of the participants to focus their attention on what they were doing and the other half to focus on the experience. It was found that the latter group exercised over 25% more than their counterparts. This suggests that the focus itself ‘renders exercising more effortful and hence more difficult to prolong.’

Fishbach and Choi’s second experiment was to focus on an activity that does not require physical effort in order to rule out the possibility that the participants that performed for longer in the previous experiment did so because they were performing at a lower level. To do this they described to a number of volunteers the long-term benefits of origami such as improved hand-eye co-ordination. Half of those surveyed were enrolled in an origami class. It was noted that those that did not practice origami demonstrated an increased willingness to try it while the volunteers that were enrolled in the class reported to experiencing a lower level of interest of the class.

The third experiment concerned dental flossing. The participants were divided into two groups. For the first group, to whom the long-term benefits of flossing were promoted to, there was greater enthusiasm towards flossing. The second group was requested to focus on the process of flossing and Fishbach and Choi noted that there was a noticeably less enthusiastic reaction among them. However, three days later another survey suggested that the latter group that had focused on the process had in fact flossed more than those focusing on the long-term benefits.

Fishbach and Choi’s final experiment provided half of the participants with information on long-term goals and the other half with no information at all. On this occasion the participants were divided into a group that did not practice yoga and a group that did. While both groups were completing a survey on yoga, they were each given a clipboard with a cover page from a yoga magazine of a woman practicing yoga.

Within each group, half of the participants’ cover pages contained text promoting the benefits of yoga and the other half contained no accompanying text. The results showed that the non-practicing participants that saw the motivational text were enthusiastic about the benefits of yoga while the participants in the yoga class that saw the cover with the text subsequently displayed a lesser degree of commitment to the class.

Fishbach and Choi’s research suggests that focusing on the ultimate goal may diminish the experience and therefore decrease the likelihood of success. They note that “to motivate themselves, individuals – prior to engagement – should better focus on the goals an activity serves and move their attention away from these goals once they are already pursuing them.”

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