Do people like to keep busy for no reason? Or is being idle okay with most of us?
Psychological researchers (Ysee et al., 2010) set to find out.
In two experiments with college students, researchers discovered that we can be happy doing nothing at all and remaining idle. But given even the slimmest of reasons to be busy doing something, and most people will opt for doing something over nothing.
The researchers also found that people were happier when they were busy, even if they were forced into busyness.
How can people be happy being busy, if that busyness serves no purpose?
In the first experiment, researchers had 98 students fill out surveys individually, and then gave them a choice before filling out a second survey 15 minutes after completing the first — they could drop off the first survey nearby and basically spend the next 15 minutes waiting for the next survey to begin. Or they could walk 15 minutes round trip to drop the first survey off in a different location. In each condition, they were rewarded with a piece of candy.
However, two experimental groups were created — those who were offered the same type of candy at both locations, and those who were told that each location where they could drop off the survey offered a different type of equally-attractive candy. Given that the candy was equally attractive at either location, one would think there’d be no reason to walk to the farther away location just to get a different piece of candy.
Yet the experimenters found that more people were willing to walk to the far away location to drop off their survey when told it was a different piece of candy than when it was the same piece of candy. The researchers attributed this to our preference to be busy, even if for the slimmest of reasons.
The researchers also conducted a measure of well-being (or ‘happiness’) at the end of the experiment and found those who took the 15 minute walk expressed a greater sense of well-being than those who basically sat in a room for 15 minutes.
The second experiment sought to replicate the happiness findings of the first one, but instead of giving people a choice of whether they would sit for 15 minutes or could walk to the far away location, they were directed to do one or the other (e.g., forced into busyness or forced into idleness). Again, the researchers found that even when forced to do the equivalent of busy-work, people were happier.
Why do people prefer to be busy doing something, anything? The researchers speculate it may be rooted in human evolution:
In their strife for survival, human ancestors had to conserve energy to compete for scarce resources; expending energy without purpose could have jeopardized survival. With modern means of production, however, most people today no longer expend much energy on basic survival needs, so they have excessive energy, which they like to release through action. Yet the long-formed tendency to conserve energy lingers, making people wary of expending effort without purpose.
If idle people remain idle, they are miserable. If idle people become busy, they will be happier, but the outcome may or may not be desirable, depending on the value of the chosen activity. Busyness can be either constructive or destructive. Ideally, idle people should devote their energy to constructive courses, but it is often difficult to predict which actions are constructive (e.g., are business investments or scientific discoveries always constructive?), and not every idle individual is capable of constructive contributions. […]
We advocate a third kind of busyness: futile busyness, namely, busyness serving no purpose other than to prevent idleness. Such activity is more realistic than constructive busyness and less evil than destructive busyness.
Food for thought next time you step out to run some errands or clean up around the house. Are you doing it because you need to, or are you doing it just to “keep busy”?
Ysee, C.K., Yang, A.X., Wang, L. (2010). Idleness Aversion and the Need for Justifiable Busyness. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797610374738