A few years ago Kenneth Sheldon and Sonja Lyubominsky conducted research into what makes people happy. They recruited people who had experienced two types of change:

  • Circumstantial Change – which involved relatively important alterations to their own circumstances (such as a pay rise, house move or purchase of a new car)
  • Intentional Change – which involves changes that required effort to pursue, (such as learning a new skill? Changing career or joining a new club).

Both sets of participants recorded their levels of happiness over a number of weeks. The results showed that although people in both groups experienced an immediate rise in happiness, those that experienced circumstantial change found their happiness levels quickly reverted to back to their initial levels, while those who had made an intentional change remained happier for a longer period.


According to Sheldon and Lyubominsky it is due to a phenomen known as ‘hedonistic habituation’. Humans get a great deal of enjoyment from any news from a positive experience. However, give someone the same experience time and time again they quickly become familiar with it and so stop getting anywhere near as much pleasure from it.

In contrast intentional change tends to avoid hedonistic habituation by  creating an ever changing physiological  landscape. Whether it is learning a new skill, joining a new organisation or initiating a project, the ‘brain’ is fed with ever changing positive experiences that prevent habituation and prolonging happiness.

The implications of this research for managers keeping their staff motivated is huge. Little things like helping an employee learn a new skill will provide a much longer sense of satisfaction than a simple pay rise, which will soon be forgotten.