How to train your brain to enjoy doing hard things

As a climber, I fight gravity while scaling the walls and their rocky holds. But my arms inevitably tire, my grip slips with sweat, and sometimes my nerves question whether I should stick to easier climbing routes.

Trying to do difficult things is, well, difficult. And exerting yourself physically and mentally often feels bad.

Yet we seek these challenges with no apparent external reward. I pay a monthly membership fee for the experience of hitting and falling at a climbing gym.

Others go even further, climbing mountains, running marathons or even ultramarathons. And many people spend their free time exercising their minds with crossword puzzles, strategizing in board games, or playing video games.

Our penchant for doing hard things that make us feel bad is what researchers call the effort paradox. Trying hard is costly and off-putting, but it’s something people appreciate.

Our brain constantly performs cost-benefit analyzes of decisions and actions. When we work hard, the anterior cingulate cortex, located near the front of our brain, tracks our efforts, and its neural activity appears to be linked to how bad the effort feels. These signals of effort help our brain to judge whether it is worthwhile to keep trying or to do something else.

Historically, the fields of cognitive neuroscience and behavioral economics have focused on the very intuitive notion that effort is often difficult. When given a choice between two cognitive tasks, people clearly prefer to do the easier one and are willing to accept fewer rewards in exchange for effort. A recent study found that people are willing to accept physical pain in order to avoid cognitively demanding tasks.

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And not only people like to be lazy. What scientists call the “law of least effort” seems to apply to animals, too. Rats also avoid physically challenging parts of the maze and cognitively demanding tasks.

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Mental exertion also takes its physical toll: our “fight-or-flight” sympathetic system is activated, our pupils dilate and our hearts beat faster.

Effort “just feels bad, and we tend to avoid it. So it’s expensive,” said Michael Inzlicht, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. But at the same time, “there’s something about pushing yourself that also seems valuable and enjoyable.”

An obvious reason we strive is for the end product, whether it’s a championship trophy, a personal record or a year-end bonus. In general, “In the real world, the harder you work, the more rewards you tend to get,” Inzlicht said.

Neuroimaging shows that when we achieve something, the ventral striatum, a brain region that plays a key role in processing worthwhile outcomes, becomes more activated with more effort than with less effort.

The more effort something requires, the more we tend to value it.

People are willing to pay more for an object they build themselves than for the same object built by experts – a phenomenon aptly called the IKEA effect.

But why do we appreciate effort that feels bad? Why do mountaineers and other outdoor enthusiasts look for “Type II fun” even when the exertion feels terrible even at the moment?

A study suggests that the answer may lie in effort. Researchers found that rewarding effort — not the result — drove people to devote themselves to more difficult tasks later, even when they didn’t receive additional rewards.

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In the first experiment, 121 people were fitted with electrodes to monitor their cardiovascular activity as a physical measure of how hard their brains were working on a standard memory task.

A group of participants were rewarded according to their effort. Another group was rewarded with random amounts of money regardless of their effort.

Then the same participants had to solve another cognitive challenge of solving math problems and were allowed to choose the difficulty. Crucially, participants were told they would not be paid for this part of the experiment.

Despite this lack of extrinsic reward, participants who were previously rewarded for their efforts chose to tackle more difficult math problems compared to participants who received random rewards.

The second set of experiments, conducted online with nearly 1,500 participants, yielded a similar result: Again, participants who were previously rewarded for more cognitive effort opted to solve more challenging math problems for free.

The study suggests we can learn to enjoy the journey, no matter the destination. The effort in itself can be worth it.

While the effects are relatively small, the results are exciting because the workouts only lasted about 15 minutes, said Veronika Job, a professor of motivational psychology at the University of Vienna and author of the study.

“How we evaluate effort is determined by what we experience in everyday life. We have this whole learning history” in school and at work That tends to reward results and achievement more than the effort we put in, Job said. But a short stay in the laboratory was able to bring the intrinsic value of intellectual work closer to the participants more.

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The new study is just a starting point for figuring out how to train yourself to be more diligent.

That doesn’t mean going full throttle in all areas of life: overexertion, burnout, and possible injuries are not healthy or desirable outcomes.

But being able to make an effort is a useful skill for achieving challenging goals that you value. In a preprint study that has not yet been peer-reviewed, Inzlicht and his colleagues found that people who find meaning in their endeavors also tend to report greater life satisfaction and purpose.

Finding the value of effort is why we are able to climb mountains and find that hidden reserve of power during a race or just before a deadline.

For her part, Job has applied her findings to how she runs her lab. Celebrations now happen when grant applications are submitted, not just when they’re accepted, so “it’s connected and more dependent on actual effort,” she said.

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