To make one happy, make one busy

Jul 29, 2010

In Greek mythology, the gods punished Sisyphus by condemning him to roll a rock up a steep hill for eternity. But he was probably better off than if they'd condemned him to sit and stare into space until the end of time, conclude the authors of a new study on keeping busy. They found that people who have something to do, even something pointless, are happier than people who sit idly.

"The general phenomenon I'm interested in is why are so busy doing what they are doing in modern society," says Christopher K. Hsee, of the University of Chicago. He co-wrote the study with Adelle X. Yang, also of the University of Chicago, and Liangyan Wang, of Shanghai Jiaotong University. "People are running around, working hard, way beyond the basic level." Sure, there are reasons, like making a living, earning money, accruing fame, helping others, and so on. But, Hsee says, "I think there's something deeper: We have excessive energy and we want to avoid idleness."

For the study, volunteers completed a survey, then had to wait 15 minutes before the next survey would be ready. They could drop off the completed survey at a nearby location and wait out the remaining time or drop it off at a location farther away, where walking back and forth would keep them busy for the 15 minutes. Either way, they would receive a candy when they handed in their survey. Volunteers who chose to stay busy by going to the faraway location were found to be happier than those who chose to be idle.

Not everyone chose to go to the faraway location. If the candies offered at the two locations were the same, the subjects were more likely to choose to stay idle. But if the candies offered at the two locations were different, they were more likely to choose the far location—because they could make up a justification for the trip, Hsee and his colleagues say. The research is published in , a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Hsee thinks it may be possible to use this principle—people like being busy, and they like being able to justify being busy—to benefit society. "If we can devise a mechanism for idle people to engage in activity that is at least not harmful, I think it is better than destructive busyness," he says. Hsee himself has been known to give a research assistant a useless task when he doesn't have anything for them to do, so he isn't sitting around the office getting bored and depressed. "I know this is not particularly ethical, but he is happy," says Hsee.

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Mayday
3.7 / 5 (3) Jul 29, 2010
I would argue that we have not become somehow "busy." The opposite seems to actually be the case, and the dilema for most people is getting worse. For a better understanding, please see this piece on "cognitive surplus":

http://www.shirky...use.html
zevkirsh
5 / 5 (1) Jul 29, 2010
this explains compulsive and addictive behavior to an extent.
TAz00
Jul 30, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
frajo
5 / 5 (1) Jul 30, 2010
So, in other words? Arbeit macht frei?
Yes, if it is your free choice.
No, if you are forced.
PTK
5 / 5 (1) Aug 01, 2010
Half my day is filled with small & pointless activities to prevent me becoming bored/inactive.
for me: preoccupation = satisfaction

I'm happier reading in the doctors waiting room than staring at a wall, doesn't that just make sense!!
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet Aug 01, 2010
Half my day is filled with small & pointless activities to prevent me becoming bored/inactive.
for me: preoccupation = satisfaction
Almost every survey of happiness shows that you are not unique in this aspect. A lot of technologically poor countries have a higher rate of happiness and satisfaction simply due to the higher level of preoccupation of time. It's a very interesting dynamic, and contrary to intuition.

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