Mood plays a major role in how people make decisions about time management, Stanford research shows

Psychology Professor James Gross found that people’s moods are key to deciding whether to spend time having fun or buckling down to tackle important but mundane chores.

Mood plays a strong role in how people decide to spend their time each day, a Stanford psychologist found.

According to new research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, people tend to engage in unpleasant but necessary activities – doing taxes, paying bills or housework – when they are in a good mood. Conversely, someone in a bad mood is more likely to choose pleasurable activities as a way to feel better.

“These findings clarify how emotions shape behavior and may explain how humans trade off short-term happiness for long-term welfare,” said James Gross, a professor of psychology who studies emotions and how people control or regulate their emotions. “Overcoming such trade-offs might be critical for our personal well-being and our survival as a species.”

man doing paperwork at the kitchen table

People tend to engage in unpleasant but necessary activities – doing taxes, paying bills or housework – when they are in a good mood. A Stanford psychologist says making this trade-off of short-term happiness for long-term welfare is important for personal well-being. (Image credit: franckreporter / Getty Images)

Moods and behavior

For their study, Gross and his fellow researchers randomly surveyed the activities and moods of more than 60,000 people over an average of 27 days. The experiment involved people responding on a smartphone app.

The researchers found that study participants chose pleasurable activities when they were feeling down or out of sorts. And, people chose to perform disagreeable but necessary activities when they were feeling upbeat.

Gross and his co-authors call this dynamic “hedonic flexibility.” Simply, people tend to use their good mood as a resource, allowing them to work on challenges, thus delaying short-term gratification for long-term benefits. Examples of such benefits include regular sleep, stable employment and a clean, well-organized personal environment – all of which are linked to good mental and physical health, the researchers noted.

The study showed that “hedonic flexibility” was consistently practiced in a range of daily choices made by respondents, such as when an upbeat mood helps one endure a long line at, say, the post office or grocery.

Managing emotions

Gross and his colleagues believe the smartphone app used in the research might one day prove useful as a “self-management” tool for people to work on their “to do” lists based on their existing moods. Once the app is fully tested, the goal is to make it available for public download. Until then, the researchers have built an online calculator that shows how mood and emotions shape the way people choose to spend their time. They say it may help people get the most value and benefit out of their emotions.

Gross suggests that the ability of people to leverage a “good” mood to complete important but unpleasant tasks and use a “bad” mood to experience pleasurable activities may hold the key to happiness and well-being.

“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,” he said.

Gross said the research confirms how human emotions shape behavior and may help persons become less focused on short-term pleasure and more centered on long-term stability. For instance, the next time someone is in a great mood, it might be time to consider a chore like cleaning out the garage or something else that one has procrastinated on.

Co-authors on the study, “Hedonism and the Choice of Everyday Activities,” include lead researchers Maxime Taquet of the Computational Radiology Laboratory at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School and Jordi Quoidbach of the Department of Economics and Business at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain.

Media Contacts

James Gross, Psychology: gross@stanford.edu

Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, cbparker@stanford.edu