Stay Busy, Stay Happy

Happiest People Shun Idleness, Keep Busy With Tasks, Study Finds

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on August 03, 2010
From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 3, 2010 -- People who stay busy with tasks tend to be happier than idle folks, new research indicates.

Researchers at the University of Chicago and Shanghai Jiaotong University enrolled 98 college students to take part in experiments requiring them to either be idle for 15 minutes or take a walk before performing another task.

The students were instructed to fill out multiple confidential surveys about their school and were told they could do nothing else while doing so.

After the first survey, participants were told it would be 15 minutes before they could do another. They were told they’d be given a piece of candy whether they decided to drop it off at a nearby location and then stay idle, or take a walk to a distant location for drop-off before doing another survey.

In one experiment, the candies were identical in both locations -- participants could choose from milk chocolate or dark chocolate. In the second experiment, the candies were different at the two locations -- one location had milk chocolate, the other dark chocolate, but the type of chocolate was randomly chosen.

This choice offered no justification for walking for 15 minutes, in which case taking a hike before completing another survey might seem foolish, the researchers say.

But knowing the treats would be different offered a justification to take a chance -- and a stroll.

Less than half of the students chose to go to the faraway location if they thought the treats would be identical, the researchers say, but more than half chose to take a walk when they knew the treats would be different.

This was true even though the students had no clue about the type of chocolate they’d get by opting to take a walk.

After 15 minutes, the students were given a questionnaire that asked, “How good did you feel in the last 15 minutes,” and responses were made on a scale from 1, or “not good at all,” to 5, indicating they felt “very good.”

The result: Busy participants who walked to the faraway spot reported greater happiness than those who chose to wait idly, the researchers say.

Benefits of Keeping Busy

Study author Christopher K. Hsee, PhD, of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, says in a news release that it may be possible to use this principle 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.

Incentives seem to work, because “people dread idleness, and their professed reasons for activity may be mere justifications for keeping busy,” he and fellow authors Adelle X. Yang, also of the University of Chicago, and Liangyan Wang, of Shanghai Jiaotong University, write in the study.

In general, people will, when given a choice, choose to do things that will keep them busy, the authors say.

“The idea that people desire justification for busyness is rooted in the general finding that people are rational animals and seek to base their decisions on reasons,” the researchers write. “It is silly to exert effort without purpose.”

“It seems that people know that busyness yields happiness, but if they lack justification for busyness, they will choose idleness,” the researchers say. This reflects the desire of people to base decisions on rules and reasons, the researchers say.

Historical Look at Busyness

The experiments were repeated in another context. Students were given a bracelet and given 15 minutes during which they could either do nothing or disassemble it and put it back together.

Some were told that if they disassembled the bracelet, they had to put it back together in the original design. Others were told that if they took the bracelet apart, they had to reassemble it into a different design.

Most students told they had to reassemble the bracelet in its original design chose to sit idly. Most told they had to reassemble it in a different way chose to stay busy.

Again, those who reassembled the bracelet reported greater happiness.

The findings “reinforced our proposition that humans concurrently desire both busyness and a justification for busyness,” the researchers say.

Such decisions, they write, are rooted in evolution, because expending energy throughout the ages without reason could jeopardize survival.

“In Greek mythology, Sisyphus’ punishment, imposed by Zeus, was to eternally roll a rock toward the top of a hill, never to arrive there,” the authors write. “Our research suggests that Sisyphus was better off with his punishment than he would have been with a punishment of an eternity of doing nothing, and that he might have chosen rolling a rock over idleness if he had been given a slight reason for doing so.”

The study is published in the August issue of the journal Psychological Science.