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The Need to Be Busy

An idle mind is not just boring, but also unhappy.

Human beings are different from other lower-order animals in several ways. Humans are the only species with the ability to imagine, which allows us to "time travel" (that is, reminisce about past events and imagine future ones) and to conceive of things (products, ideas) that currently don't exist. We are also the only species to be aware that we are going to die, which, according to some psychologists, is the primary reason we have traditions and culture.

A third way in which we are different from other species is that we are the only ones to feel the need to be busy. Most lower-order animals would presumably be perfectly satisfied to idle their time away. Give a lower-order animal sufficient quantities of food, love, and shelter, and the animal will likely grow to be fat and happy; the animal would have no issues about lazing around and frittering away the rest of its life.

How would humans react to doing nothing for the rest of their life?

Recent work by Hsee, Yang, and Wang suggests that most humans would find such a life utterly miserable. It appears that human beings have a desire to be busy. However — here's the catch — we can't be busy for the sake of being busy. We need a reason for being busy, even if it is only a flimsy one.

In one study, Hsee and his co-authors asked participants to fill out a survey. They told participants that the completed survey could be dropped at one of two locations. One location was nearby, while another was far away (a 12-15 minute round trip). Participants could thus deliver the survey to the nearby location and wait out the remaining time in the experimental session (the idle option) or deliver the survey to the faraway location, return, and then wait out any remaining time (busy option). For reasons that will become clear shortly, participants were told that, as a token of appreciation for completing the survey, they would be given a piece of candy.

Which option did participants choose? Would they choose to deliver the survey at the nearby location and confront the boredom of being idle or would they spend time and energy to deliver it to the faraway location?

The answer, it turned out, depended on whether the participants had some — even if only specious — justification for walking to the faraway location. One set of participants were told that the candy they would get as a token of appreciation was the same at both locations — either milk chocolate or dark chocolate. Participants in this condition thus had little justification for walking the longer distance to submit the completed survey. Another set of participants, in contrast, were told that they would get different candies at the two locations: milk chocolate at one location and dark chocolate at the other. Participants in this condition had some justification for choosing the faraway location — walking the longer distance would afford them the opportunity to consume a different candy.

Results showed that, in the same-candy condition, only 32 percent of participants chose the faraway location. In contrast, in the different-candy condition, 59 percent did.

A second experiment by the same authors showed that people who are forced into busyness are happier than those who are forced into idleness. This experiment's set up was similar to that of the first experiment, except that the participants were forced to deliver their completed survey at either the faraway location or the nearby one. Once participants had delivered the survey to the assigned location, they waited out the rest of the time in the experimental room, and then, were asked to report their happiness levels by responding to the following question: How happy did you feel in the last 15 minutes?

Results indicated that participants forced to deliver the survey to the faraway location (that is, those forced to be busy) were significantly happier.

What do these results imply for human behavior?

First — and this is the most straightforward implication — they suggest that an important tool in our arsenal for being happy is to stay busy. So long as we have some — even if it is only a flimsy — justification for doing something, we are likely to be happier doing it than not doing it.

Second, they suggest that an important reason why most of us do what we do — build highways, invest money, teach at schools, etc. — is to stay busy. If busyness enhances happiness, then there's an important reason why people seek employment and engagement in activity beyond earning money and paying the bills. It is to maintain a positive emotional state.

A final implication that emerges from the findings is the following: It seems plausible that the happiness people get from being busy can potentially blind them from examining the intricate web of consequences, both good and bad, that emerge out of their actions. To me, this implication is somewhat disturbing, since it suggests that people can be made to engage in tasks that are not just menial or meaningless, but even in those that are harmful to themselves or to others.

Could the need for busyness be part of the reason why people engage in war and other types of harmful actions? Could the root of evil lie not just in money and greed, but also in boredom?

That's an intriguing question to ponder.

More from Raj Raghunathan Ph.D.
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