The Surprising Link Between Effort and Meaning
Research suggests joy and meaning come from effortful activities.
Posted January 30, 2023 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Behavioral economists have long spoken about mental labor in terms of economics—people usually think of effort in terms of costs and payoffs.
- According to the "law of least effort," people find exerting either physical or cognitive effort aversive or costly.
- Some people—such as mountaineers and Rubik's cubers—choose to exert effort for sheer joy.
- Recent research suggests that effort helps endow activities and experiences with a sense of meaning.
As I was reading about cognitive effort, or "mental labor," to write this post, I couldn’t help but think of the time I spent two weeks trying my hand at “speed-cubing,” or solving a Rubik’s cube as fast as possible. As someone who had never been into solving puzzles of any kind until that point, this was a challenging endeavor, to say the least.
Why did I choose to do this—despite my initial attempts making me feel more than a little inadequate—when I could have chosen to do one of several other things that would have cost me less mental effort? Why do any of us choose to do things that are hard?
Of Costs and Payoffs: The Behavioral Economics Theory of Effort
Behavioral economists have long spoken about mental labor in terms of economics. There are two key frameworks of this theory. One is that people exert mental effort as a means to get something for themselves. We all know the feeling of staying up late to study for an exam, however unpleasant the experience, because we need a good grade on a paper.
The second idea that is often agreed upon by many cognitive scientists and economists is that exerting mental effort is costly. We usually don’t enjoy exerting mental effort, and if given a choice between two options that create the same outcome, we will choose the path that requires the least effort.
Several studies have shown that humans and other animals find the idea of exerting either mental or physical effort aversive and will try their best to avoid exerting effort where possible. If humans are given the choice to reduce cognitive effort, they usually take the option to do so. It appears then, at least at first glance, that the only thing that can convince people to expend effort is when this effort is compensated with an adequate reward.
Why Humans Choose to Perform Effortful Activities
Several academics argue that this “law of least effort” cannot be the whole story. If it were, it would be hard to explain, for one, why most lottery winners continue to work even after winning huge sums of money, often with the same employer as before. The authors of this particular study frame their findings through the lens of work centrality, or the idea that work holds an importance in people’s lives that is beyond monetary reward.
Work centrality might also help explain the complicated relationship between retirement and happiness. Several studies have found that retirement is associated with lower levels of happiness and life satisfaction, and that people often choose to delay retirement when given the option, even when they have enough money to live a comfortable life.
Aside from the fact that work or effort often gives us meaning, there is very often sheer joy in the process of expending effort towards a particular task. While many of us think of relaxation in terms of indulging in tasks that require no physical or mental effort on our part, several others, like mountaineers, Rubix-cubers, and strategy gamers, actively choose effortful endeavors because they give them a deep sense of joy.
Effort Imbues Experiences With Meaning
Some laboratory studies have also demonstrated a link between effort and meaning. Studies on the aptly named “martyrdom effect” have shown that people are more likely to contribute to a charitable cause when effort was involved in the process—a marathon for charity felt more meaningful than a charity picnic, for instance. Other studies have also shown that the more the effort demanded of a laboratory task, the more was the meaning derived from it.
In an article on meaning, social psychologist and host of the Cognitive Revolution podcast, Cody Kommer, argues that there is no such thing as an activity that is inherently meaningful. Instead, he says, humans tend to assign meaning to experiences post-hoc, or after the experience, rather than during it. And the events in life that we consider most meaningful are usually the ones in which we had to overcome a difficult circumstance.
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“I think this gives us a clue about where to look for meaning: in hard things. This doesn’t guarantee the presence of meaning, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee what that meaning might be. But I do think it suggests that when we’re at a crossroads, the road that we know will be harder will also be the one which is most meaningful," writes Kommer.
Several questions on the link between effort and meaning remain yet unanswered, including why we find effort meaningful, and under what circumstances. There are also limits to the meaningfulness of effort—not all of us indulge in effortful tasks as a form of relaxation, and it is unlikely that people who are forced to indulge in a difficult task would derive any kind of meaning from it. As cognitive science brings us closer to the answers, it might be time for us to unyoke the word effort from its usually unpleasant connotations.
 Inzlicht M, Shenhav A, Olivola CY. The Effort Paradox: Effort Is Both Costly and Valued. Trends Cogn Sci. 2018 Apr;22(4):337-349. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2018.01.007. Epub 2018 Feb 21. PMID: 29477776; PMCID: PMC6172040.
 Michael Inzlicht, Aidan V. Campbell, Effort feels meaningful, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Volume 26, Issue 12, 2022, Pages 1035-1037, ISSN 1364-6613, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2022.09.016.
 Arvey RD, Harpaz I, Liao H. Work centrality and post-award work behavior of lottery winners. J Psychol. 2004 Sep;138(5):404-20. doi: 10.3200/JRLP.138.5.404-420. PMID: 15529735.
 Olivola CY, Shafir E. The Martyrdom Effect: When Pain and Effort Increase Prosocial Contributions. J Behav Decis Mak. 2013 Jan;26(1):91-105. doi: 10.1002/bdm.767. Epub 2011 Dec 22. PMID: 23559692; PMCID: PMC3613749.
 Campbell, A.V. et al. (2022) Meaningfulness of effort: deriving purpose from really trying. PsyArXiv Published online June 26, 2022. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/sg3aw