Which would you choose: $2.25 to listen to an alarm clock going off or $2.00 to listen to a clip of "Hey Jude"?
More money, right? In a recent study, nearly three-quarters of people chose the higher paying gig, subjecting themselves to an annoying alarm sound for one minute. But afterward, those who made that choice regretted the decision more than those who took less money to listen to "Hey Jude".
In study after study, researchers have found that at the start of a task, we think about external reward -- losing weight from going to the gym, making more money with a higher paying job. But once we start the task and, importantly, afterward, we think more about how we feel and what brings us meaning. And feeling good about what we're doing pushes us harder and makes us persist longer -- whether in the gym or on the job.
The studies reminded me of a story in How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life. In the book, Russ Roberts describes how Warren Buffet's son sold his $90,000 in Berkshire stock to pursue a music career. Even though that stock would be worth $100 million today, Buffet's son wrote in his memoir how he didn't regret his decision. He lived a satisfying life with a successful music career.
Of course, it seems easy to talk about following your passion when the decision is something little -- like choosing what to listen to for one minute -- or when it's a seemingly win-win for most people -- $90,000 is still a lot of money. Even though all the research tells us that money in and of itself won't bring us meaning, we still are, understandably, lured to wealth.
Setting aside external rewards is hard. We all want a nice home, good schools for our kids, things to comfort and entertain us. Striking the balance is always on my mind, but especially as the year closes and I think about my goals for the New Year.
It's a Meaningful Life
Top on my list is recognizing meaning in the everyday -- trying to live more in the present, to enjoy the people and opportunities around me. Contrary to popular belief, meaning is not an unattainable mythological idea; social psychologists have found that meaning is life is common and easily attainable. Thinking about and looking for meaning isn't the answer -- the key is seeing and appreciating what's already there, like our friends, family and co-workers.
Time and time again, researchers have found that we derive great meaning from making social connections. That's part of why people value a gift of of a homemade meal or a concert more than a tablet or pair of earrings -- because the meal or concert brings people together and gives us stories to tell. We all want to feel appreciated, valued, loved and respected by others; we all want help others and make a positive difference in their lives.
Even if you can't pursue your dreams right away, make it your New Year's goal to see the joy in some aspect of what you do. It's like when we try to excite children about a school subject they dread: for example, getting kids into math by connecting it to something they love, like sports or video games. (Or even better, using physics to get to Tatooine.) For us adults, it's the same.
Finding something you can become passionate about may not be easy. Our intuitions about what will bring us long-term happiness are not always right. Yet making meaningful choices is key to well-being, so it's an important journey for us all to take.
We need to inject more of our passions into everyday life -- to create the sparks that give us more meaning. Only then can we truly author our own lives.
Munoz is a science writer based in Northern Virginia. She works with the OS Fund and is public information officer for the Cognitive Neuroscience Society and the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
This post is part of a HuffPost Science series exploring the surge of new research on the human brain. Are you a neuroscientist with an insight to share? Tell us about it by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.