You know that feeling of satisfaction when you finally complete something you’ve been working on for a while or follow through on an intention that really challenged you? It turns out, achieving those lofty goals offers benefits beyond just an immediate reward.
Take it from positive psychiatrist and author of Everyday Vitality Samantha Boardman, M.D.: On the mindbodygreen podcast, she shares the science behind “desirable difficulties,” why we find them so satisfying, and how they ultimately help foster more resilience.
The science behind “desirable difficulties.”
Here’s the gist: The researchers wanted to train rats to drive tiny, lab-made cars. So every time they steered or navigated the car to various locations, they earned a Froot Loop. (“Apparently it’s their favorite [food] in the world,” says Boardman.)
However, the researchers separated the rats into two groups before their driving tests: One group lived in a complex, enriched environment filled with dynamic challenges (tall structures, climbing ladders, and the like—things rats might consider as challenges, anyway). The other group was housed in a standard (read: boring) lab setting, no obstacles in sight.
When it was time for the driving test, the researchers found that the rats who lived in the more dynamic, enriching environment were more resilient to the challenges they faced while navigating the car. They kept at it until they finally reached their Froot Loop; the rats who lived in lab housing, however, were more likely to give up when faced with driving challenges, Froot Loop be damned.
OK, but how does this research relate to our human experience? Well, says Boardman, you can surround yourself with dynamic challenges in other areas of your life so that if you are tasked with an obstacle that requires some grit, you’re more well equipped to keep at it. “When we create desirable difficulty, when we’re challenged in a way that we feel we have the resources to meet that challenge, it actually feels really good,” she says. “There’s self-efficacy that is engaged in that, and that’s where we build resilience.”
How to create desirable difficulties.
Of course, the key to reaping the benefits of desirable difficulties is feeling that the goal is, in fact, desirable. In terms of realistic challenges that give you the resilience reward, Boardman is a big fan of hobbies, as learning new activities can have some brain-healthy benefits.
Other ideas include learning (and mastering) a new type of movement in your workout regimen (check out mbg moves for inspiration!) or even mindfully cleaning out your closet. In the end, it’s important that the intention be somewhat of a stretch but within the context of having the resources you need to reasonably reach it.
The concept of “desirable difficulties” provides a helpful description for those challenges that elicit a sense of joy and well-being upon fulfillment. They also help prime you for resilience whenever you need it most—that way, when you do reach the reward (in the rats’ case, a Froot Loop), it’ll taste that much sweeter.