Why Busywork Makes You Happy

A new study published in the journal Psychological Science has found that people have "two concurrent, yet paradoxical and conflicting, desires: They (a) dread idleness and desire busyness, but (b) need reasons for their busyness and will not voluntarily choose busyness without some justification."


Essentially, people don't like doing nothing, but also don't like doing things for no reason.  To test the competing desires of idleness and activity, researchers Christopher Hsee, Adelle Yang and Liangyan Wang asked nearly a hundred college students fill out surveys. Between surveys, participants were told either to drop off the paperwork a fifteen-minute walk away or to wait fifteen minutes doing nothing. After the fifteen minutes of activity or idleness, the participants were again surveyed, this time on their happiness over the intervening period.  Those who went for the walk (the busier option) were happier.  A second test took away the component of choice, instructing some participants to remain idle and others to take the walk.  The results yielded similar results, meaning regardless of volition, busyness makes one happier than idleness.

Should you think the results are dependent on the ambulatory event across campus, the results were matched by another test involving taking apart or not taking apart a trinket. Most intriguing, the researchers add, "even a specious justification can motivate people to be busy."  This is somewhat redeeming for low-level busyness, or "futile busyness" as it is called in the report, which serves "no purpose other than to prevent idleness." While such intentional industry, even when impotent, may make you happier, the drive toward idleness remains strong, the study says. 

The study concludes by speculating on the application of paternalism in providing such specious justification.  "Governments," the study speculates, "may increase the happiness of idle citizens by having them build bridges that are actually useless."  The researchers say, "some such interventions already exist," noting a study that "Airports have tried to increase the happiness (or reduce the unhappiness) of passengers waiting at the baggage carousel by increasing the distance between the gate and the baggage claim area, forcing them to walk far rather than wait idly." 

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