July 2013 - Happier Human


Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Myth of Inspiration – Why Feeling Excited Isn’t Enough

You’re excited. You feel that this time will be different.

I want it bad enough. I can do this.

You start making plans. Maybe, you take the first step.

But then its gone. After a few hours or a few days, you’re back to normal. Feeling mundane, doing the mundane.


Two reasons.

Problem 1. Inspiration escapes as quickly as it enters.

Hunger is natural. When we ignore it, it gets stronger and stronger until all we can think about is food.

Inspiration is unnatural. With the passage of time, it leaks out of our body, as if it doesn’t belong.

No surprise – it doesn’t.

Hunger comes, whether we want it to or not. Inspiration doesn’t.

That’s why we read inspirational books and videos, again and again and again and again. But watching inspirational videos and reading uplifting stories takes time and has an inconsistent effect, sometimes getting us excited, other times leaving us bored.

That’s why personal coaches and motivational speakers are so fond of positive visualization. Of imagining your desires having already come true. That’s inspiring.

Unfortunately, inspiration isn’t enough.

Problem 2. Inspiration unconverted to motivation feels good but doesn’t lead to action.

How often have you felt excited and then done nothing to show for it?

There isn’t some sort of excitement threshold, past which you actually start getting your goals done. Excitement is like salt water – by itself, completely useless. It takes a purifier to change it into something useful.

Goal setting isn’t primarily effective because it’s inspiring, but because it converts transient desire into long-term focus and commitment. It’s a purifier.

But often, it’s not enough.

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Positive Psychology Resources

What is Positive Psychology?

Wikipedia positive psychology page.

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What (and Why) is Positive Psychology, an overview paper by psychologists Shelly Gable and Jonathan Haidt.

Positive Psychology Books

1. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom – The book which introduced me to positive psychology.


Book summary.

2. Stumbling on Happiness – What are cognitive biases and what is their relevance to happiness and well-being?

[ted id=97]

Wikipedia book summary.

3. The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does – Debunks a number of happiness myths.

Video introduction.

A summary of hedonic adaptation.

4. Flourish – Written by field founder Martin Seligman, introduces recent research as well as the new PERMA model of well-being.


New York Times piece introducing PERMA.

Related Books

The Time Paradox – The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life – The subtitle is a bit of an exaggeration, but the book provides an entertaining and informative overview of a different approach to happiness.

The First 20 Minutes – An overview of recent exercise science. Why is this on the list? Because exercise is one of the most effective methods of increasing well-being.

Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind – Best book on self-compassion, another effective method of increasing well-being.

Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier – The best book on gratitude, perhaps the most effective method of increasing well-being.

The Happiness Project – An inspiring story of someone actually implementing positive psychology advice.

Willpower: Rediscovering The Greatest Human Strength – What good is advice if you don’t implement it?

Search Inside Yourself – Not the most accurate or scientific introduction to meditation, but certainly the most inspiring.

A Guide to the Good Life – The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy – I recommend this book for its section on negative visualization, perhaps the most powerful gratitude exercise. Also describes an alternative approach to happiness.


The Psychology of Well-Being
Positive Psychology News Daily
Motivational Memo
The Happiness Project
The Positivity Blog
Marc and Angel Hack Life
Change Your Thoughts Change Your Life

Reference Books

The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology

Well-Being: Foundations of Hedonic Psychology

Designing Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward


Cognitive Biases – Thinking Fast and Slow, the best book on the subject. LessWrong, a deeper look at rationality.
Gratitude – Research studies here, research studies and overviews here.
Grit – Research studies here, research summary here.
Sel-Compassion – Research here, research summary here.
Self-Regulation – Research here and here.
Social Anxiety & Character Strengths – Research here, VIA Institute on Character here.
Time Perspective –
Losada Ratio – Research and summary here.

Contact me if you need help getting research papers.


Difficult, Not Easy

The harder the goal, the smaller the motivation. Right?

Unless the reward also got better, the effort wouldn’t be worth it anymore.

That’s why I use to choose easy over difficult. When trying to accomplish difficult long-term goals, I would break them up into easy sub-goals.

Easy means reason for optimism and less effort. That should increase motivation.

But it doesn’t. Reality works the other way around.

Up to a point, difficult goals are more motivating than easy ones.

As I looked through the goal-setting research literature, I discovered something surprising.

Up to a point, difficult goals are more motivating than easy ones, even if the reward stays the same.

In other words, if you want to feel more motivated, select a harder goal.

Your Brain, Uncle Scrooge

Scientists call it the discontinuous expectancy model, but the math can be summed up into one sentence,

We are motivational misers who constantly fine-tune our effort levels so that we strive just enough for success.3

We’re less likely to pursue difficult goals. Why do so few people aspire to become millionaires? Often because they lack the confidence. In my case, because I’m not at all sure that the crazy amount of effort involved would be worth it.

But once a challenging goal is selected, that same difficulty which was a source of resistance becomes a source of energy. Those with a goal of becoming a millionaire access more motivation than those with a goal of staying debt-free. In part because the vision of being rich is more inspiring, but also because becoming a millionaire requires more motivation.

Having made up its mind, the brain provides as much motivation as it thinks is necessary, but no more.

discontinuous model of expectations (small)

Motivation is low for easy goals because the brain is frugal – there’s no point getting excited and wasting energy on something simple and easy, like eating breakfast, taking a shower, or sending an e-mail. As goal difficulty increases, motivation rises in step – for example, getting a training certification requires more energy than taking a shower, which the brain provides by increasing motivation.

However, after a certain level of difficulty motivation immediately drops to near zero, as the brain feels that the task is too challenging – that even with a high level of motivation, their resources or abilities are not enough.

The peak of that line is the sweet spot.

Aim High & Shoot Middle

In order to accommodate the fact that our brains are short-sighted, in the last post you took your long-term goal and converted it into a short-term sub-goal.

The next step is making that short-term sub-goal challenging enough to be exciting. Simply by making the sub-goal harder, you’ll have more motivation, even if the reward stays the same.

But difficult goals are less likely to be achieved. That’s why most people suggest aiming low and shooting high. Okay.

If your intention is to feel satisfied with yourself, aim low and shoot high. Seriously – setting challenging goals will reduce your satisfaction.

But if your intention is to actually get something done, aim high and shoot middle.1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 ,11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18

Even when I fail to achieve the difficult sub-goals I set for myself, I’m happier for the experience – having something challenging to work towards is exciting. I learned, I made a little progress, next time I’ll do better.

Challenging But Doable

You started with a long-term goal for which you’ve continuously made little or no progress, and now you’ll create from it an exciting short-term sub-goal.

Do that, and you’ll have targets which have to be hit NOW, not the ever later later. And now, hopefully, you’ve got something exciting to work towards over the following few days or weeks.

Without going overboard, what can you transform your sub-goal into so that it is challenging and exciting but doable?

Inspiration Box


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Previous Post: Now, Not Later

Next Post: The Myth of Inspiration – Why Feeling Excited Isn’t Enough


1. The Effects of Holding Goal Difficulty Constant on Assigned and Participatively Set Goals, 1979.
2. The Effect of Beliefs on Maximum Weight-Lifting Performance, 1979.
3. Another Look at The Relationship of Expectancy and Goal Difficulty to Task Performance, 1980.
4. Increasing Productivity With Decreasing Time Limits: A Field Replication of Parkinson’s Law, 1975.
5. Interrelationships Among Employee Participation, Individual Differences, Goal Difficulty, Goal Acceptance, Goal Instrumentality, and Performance, 1978.
6. A Study of The Effects of Task Goal and Schedule Choice on Work Performance, 1979.
7. Knowledge of Score and Goal Level as Determinants of Work Rate, 1969.
8. Studies of The Relationship Between Satisfaction, Goal Setting, and Performance, 1970.
9. The Effects of Participation in Goal Setting on Goal Acceptance and Performance, 1975.
10. A Two-Factor Model of The Effect of Goal-Descriptive Directions on Learning From Text, 1975.
11. Additive Effects of Task Difficulty and Goal Setting on Subsequent Task Performance 1976.
12. Role of Performance Goals in Prose Learning, 1976).
13. The Motivational Strategies Used by Supervisors: Relationships to Effectiveness Indicators, 1976.
14. Effects Achievement Standards, Tangible Rewards, and Self-Dispensed Achievement Evaluations on Children’s Task Mastery, 1977.
15. Systems Analysis of Dyadic Interaction: Prediction From Individual Parameters, 1978 .
16. The Interaction of Ability and Motivation in Performance: An Exploration of The Meaning of Moderators, 1978.
17. Effects of Goal Level on Performance: A Trade-off of Quantity and Quality, 1978.
18. Importance of Supportive Relationships in Goal Setting, 1979.

Now, Not Later

Everyone I’ve met has at least one realistic dream they’d like to see come true.

They’d like to have a good body. Or be nicer. Or learn a hobby.

But when I ask them what they’re doing to make it come true, almost always, stripping away the wishy-washy, what I hear is “nothing”.

Not surprising. Our brains were wired to be short-sighted.

Procrastination isn’t a mark of the lazy. It’s the default, a mark of normality.

Animated Hyperbolic Discounting

Although college kids are the most likely to wait until the last minute, the problem is universal. According to online goal setting community 43things, stop procrastinating is the third most popular goal (no surprise, lose weight is #1).

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The World’s Best (Free) Guide to Goal Setting

Dream big dreams; only big dreams have the power to move men’s souls.

-Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome

It’s a paradox. It’s the big goals that excite us and get us to stop hitting the snooze button. They make us feel alive. They make the boring interesting, and the frustrating exciting.

But it’s the big goals that are the least likely to end up accomplished.

After a short burst of energy, the excitement and interest fizzles. And then, maybe, you get excited once again. And then, just like last time, after a short burst of energy, the excitement fizzles and takes you back to where you started, with little or no progress to show for it.

For much of my life, I’ve set only realistic goals. Goals that could be easily accomplished. After all, what’s the point of dreaming big if the obvious result is failure?

But I’ve gotten greedy. I’d rather get work done AND feel inspired.

I don’t want to have just enough motivation to get by. I want as much as possible. More motivation equals more energy and more life.

Are you greedy too?

Do you want more accomplishment, more energy, more happiness, more life?

Then welcome to the world’s best free guide to goal setting.

Inspiration Rollercoaster
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