The Nuance

Hard Work Is the Key to True Happiness (aka, Your Parents Were Right)

Scientists untangle the relationship between effort and emotional payoff

Markham Heid
Published in
5 min readNov 29, 2019
Credit: simonkr/Getty Images

In his 2004 book Authentic Happiness, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman tells the story of a lizard that won’t eat.

The lizard belonged to one of Seligman’s colleagues. No matter what it was offered — fruit, ground pork, dead flies — the lizard refused to eat. But then one day its owner tossed a newspaper down on top of a ham sandwich. The lizard pounced on the newspaper, shredded it to pieces, and devoured the sandwich beneath it.

“Lizards have evolved to stalk and pounce and shred before they eat,” Seligman writes in his book. “So essential was the exercise… to the life of the lizard that its appetite could not be awakened until [this behavior] was engaged.”

Seligman is one of the founders of the “positive psychology” movement, which aims to understand those behaviors or patterns of thinking that promote happiness or other positive mental states. The lizard anecdote, he writes, raises the question of whether there are true shortcuts to pleasure or gratification. For the lizard, the answer was no. It needed to engage in certain behaviors before it could enjoy something as essentially pleasurable as eating food.

Researchers are finding that the parts of life from which people derive the most durable and profound pleasure are often ones that require effort.

While human beings are “immensely more complex” than lizards, Seligman writes, our willingness to bypass effort in favor of “snatching up” as many easy pleasures as possible may partly explain why so many people are unhappy at a time when life has never been so comfortable and pleasure so abundant. “Our pleasures and the appetites they serve are tied by evolution to a repertoire of actions,” he writes. Without performing these actions, pleasurable rewards just don’t do much for us.

Contemporary life often prizes convenience and ease above all else; these tend to be the chief virtues of the products or services people…



Markham Heid

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.