Emotions inform a lot of our behavior. We experience fear seeing a mouse in the living room and so we try to escape it by jumping onto a chair. We are angry at our romantic partner and so we fight and yell. We experience interest learning something new and so we engage and try to learn more. 

There are many times when positive emotions fuel our motivation. For example, a college student who feels more positive about her major is more likely to study for her classes. However, this is not always the case. Many people also experience a phenomenon called coasting—they reduce their effort on a task after feeling particularly optimistic. For example, a student who feels good about his progress with studying may reward himself on the following day by having a relaxing break time.

Our recent research shows that you're not alone if you find yourself struggling to consistently put effort in after working effectively on a previous day. We tracked college students' feelings and effort toward their academic goals every day for either five or fourteen days. Each day, students reported their feelings toward their academic goals (excited, interested, distressed, upset) and how much time they spent on them.

Our participants behaved like your home thermostat would: those who felt positive about the progress they made toward their academic goals tended to spend less time working on those goals the very next day. When students felt negative about their academic goal progress, they increased the time they spent on those goals the next day.

Pride Will Particularly Lead You to Coast on the Next Day

People experience many different positive emotions, such as enjoyment, enthusiasm, or interest. Do all these positive emotions lead to coasting? Our research showed that pride was the emotion that led to coasting. Pride is an emotion that arises from looking back on past progress or past achievement—whether accomplished that day, or a long time ago. In contrast, enjoyment arises from the current activities a person is engaging in, and enthusiasm arises from looking forward to upcoming events. In our findings, people were more likely to coast when they felt positively about the progress they had made.

Some People Can Use Negative Emotions to Fuel Their Motivation

Negative emotions can fuel effort, but not for everyone. Only students who reported having high self-control increased the time they spent on academic goals after feeling negative emotions the prior day. When students were not equipped with self-control skills, feeling negative emotions, particularly shame about their academic progress, led to spending less time on academic tasks the next day. These results suggest that students with higher self-control tend to cope with their negative emotions more productively.

Coasting Can Be Detrimental to Goal Achievement, but It Can Also Serve a Function

Coasting might sound bad, but it can also play a functional role. For example, most students take several courses a semester while also pursuing social goals to create and maintain friendships. If each of these goals is important, it is not wise to consistently prioritize one and overlook others. Positive emotions can help people manage this challenge by signaling when time and resources can be diverted from one goal to another. That is, positive emotions may signal to the student that "Okay, you're doing great in your history class. Now it's time to focus on improving your understanding in your math course." Indeed, some research has support this idea. For example, after reducing their effort toward weight loss goals, people often expend more effort toward other competing goals.

Sometimes it seems like we're held captive to our emotions, responding just as they direct us to, without being able to take control of them or our behavior. But, knowing how emotions influence our behavior can also help us leverage their powerful effects. Ernest Hemingway, one of the most prolific novelists of the 20th century, enjoyed fishing on the Gulf Stream after writing many words for his novel on a previous day. At the same time, Hemingway remarked once that he kept this daily record of the number of words he produced "so as not to kid" himself.

Hemingway must have been a master at self-regulating his writing goals; he strategically attempted to regulate his coasting or effort. Just as it was useful for Hemingway, we hope that knowing your potential for coasting after feeling good can help you strategically pursue all of your important long-term goals.

For Further Reading

Seo, E., & Patall, E. A. (2021). Feeling proud today may lead people to coast tomorrow: Daily intraindividual relations between emotion and effort in academic goal striving. Emotion, 21(4), 892-897. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000752

Eunjin Seo is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Department of Psychology and the Population Research Center at the University of  Texas at Austin. Eunjin's research seeks to understand the interplay between motivation, achievement, and well-being during adolescence to improve adolescents' trajectories on the path to adulthood. 

Erika A. Patall is an Associate Professor of Education and Psychology in the Rossier School of Education at University of Southern California. Her interests are in student motivation, motivating educational practices, and the application of research synthesis methods in education.