As a kid, taking cough medicine can be one of the most pain-staking tasks to accomplish. All of the anguish that comes with sniffling noses, congested headaches, feverish temperatures and upset stomachs are secondary to the agony of ingesting that horrible-tasting elixir.

As an adult, this doesn’t get a whole lot better! What does happen is you get immune to the taste, because you know that the temporary unpleasantness of swallowing the cough or flu medicine will lead to the long-term relief of your illness.

The same goes for making positive changes in your lifestyle! A little pain goes a long way towards achieving happiness.

In 2009, San Fransisco State University published a study that showed people who work hard at improving a skill or ability may experience stress in the moment, but experience greater happiness on a daily basis and longer term. One key take away from the ‘no pain, no gain’ theory is that goal-setting can key happiness, even when you don’t reach your goal.

“People often give up their goals because they are stressful,” said Ryan Howell, assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, “but we found that there is benefit at the end of the day from learning to do something well. And what’s striking is that you don’t have to reach your goal to see the benefits to your happiness and well-being.”

At its core, the theory deals with managing expectations. Take a new Hollywood blockbuster that people talk about incessantly with a trailer that pops up in between every YouTube video you try to watch. It could be a great film after all, but you’ll be underwhelmed leaving the theaters if it doesn’t turn out to be one of your all-time favorites. The bar was set so high that it would have taken a monumental showcase to reach (let alone exceed) your expectations.

Like an over-hyped film, your happiness is relative to the expectations you set for yourself on a daily, and even hourly, basis. When’s the last time you went to the movies with a friend, family member or significant other? In those instances, it may not have even mattered what film was playing, as long as you spent time with that person. Your happiness, in those cases, came from the anticipation of having a date night or simply spending time with a niece, nephew, parent, child or sibling you haven’t seen in a while.

Last year, a team of scientists in the United Kingdom actually developed an equation said to measure and predict happiness. In addition to it being a model for demonstrating the relationship between risk and reward in achieving happiness, it offers an interesting observation of personal expectations.

“[Y]our immediate sense of happiness depends on the size of the gap between what you achieve and what you expect,” said Professor Andrew Oswald, a behavioral economist at the University of Warwick.

This makes sense, these scientists said, because it means that happiness, like anything else, is relative. When you realize that your daily commute is a time to listen to the new Adele album your husband won’t appreciate, the drive to work or the gym becomes that much better. Maybe that once arduous half hour of time spent on the treadmill is the only time your thoughts can truly run free. Once you realize this, you’ve stripped those minor tasks of their power to stress you out.

Next thing you know your appreciation for the gym, work or eating healthy becomes more refined. Sometimes it just takes some effort to make your new positive habits more palatable.

As Howell, the assistant professor from SFSU said:

“Like a wine connoisseur whose experience means they can appreciate a fine wine more than a novice, people who are already satisfied with their life may have learned how to glean the satisfaction of these needs from their daily activities.”

Unfortunately, the fittest person on the planet is not immune to the physical soreness that comes from lifting heavier weights for more repetitions and running, rowing and biking longer and faster than you ever thought possible.

Even the greatest athletes still lumber up and down the stairs after squat days. The difference is that over time you start to embrace that soreness as a feeling of accomplishment!

It may take a little while before you’re able to mentally and physically deal with the short-term pain that comes with developing positive habits. That’s why it helps to break big goals into small, manageable milestones. Text messaging programs like Caterpilly are becoming more popular as scientists learn how helpful they can be as reminders to stay on track and take behavioral change one step at a time.

Next time you’re questioning whether to go for your nightly run or replace it with a pint of ice cream, just think of the conversation you would have with a four-year old whose tummy hurts.

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