Get Busy and Get Happy

In defense of busywork

Posted Jul 27, 2010

Busywork has a bad rep. Keeping yourself (or someone else) busy doing meaningless or unnecessary tasks, simply for the sake of avoiding idleness, seems like a pointless waste of energy. Only it turns out there is a point to it - recent research shows that keeping busy doing anything makes you a whole lot happier than you would have been doing nothing. Just sitting around, bored and inert, is a recipe for misery.

But if that's true, why then do we so often choose idleness? Why do we do nothing, when we could almost always be doing something? The study of human behavior is full of such paradoxes: People are happier when they do X. If you ask them, they'll even tell you they prefer to do X. Unfortunately, people often don't actually do X - they do The Opposite of X. And they have no idea why.

In this case, the answer seems to lie in our ability (or inability) to justify our actions. We really do prefer to be busy than to just sit around doing nothing, and being busy does in fact make us much happier, but we just can't bring ourselves to choose busyness over idleness without some sort of reason for the busyness.

Take for example a recent study, in which students were given the option of turning in a survey to get their candy reward in one of two places. They could turn it in right next door, though they would have to wait outside the door for 15 minutes before turning it in, or they could turn it in at another location that involved a 15 minute round-trip walk. The majority of students chose to sit and wait next door, rather than take an unnecessary walk. They chose idleness over busywork (i.e., walking), despite the fact that the few who chose busywork reported being much happier when the 15 minutes were up.

But when the researchers introduced a justification for taking the long walk - that a different (though not actually better) candy would be offered as a reward for the walkers - the majority of students chose the busy option. "I really prefer the candy you get after the walk," they told themselves. But really, what they preferred was doing something over doing nothing, and all they needed was a reason. Any reason.

Two forces are usually at work whenever we do choose idleness. First, we have an aversion to needlessly expending energy. This aversion is probably built in to each of us as a part of our evolutionary inheritance. Animals who waste the energy they need to find food and ward off predators are less likely to survive, so animals who spend their energy wisely have the survival advantage.

Second, human beings vastly prefer their actions to be meaningful. We like the things we do to have reasons - so much so that often when we don't really have a good reason for what we've done, we try to make one up. We are loathe to undertake any action when we know there is no justification for it.

The good news is, now that you know that busyness is better for you and will make you happier than just sitting around, you will always have a reason to choose busyness. Get up and do something. Anything. Even if there really is no point to what you are doing, you will feel better for it.

Incidentally, thinking deeply or engaging in self-reflection counts as keeping busy, too. You don't need to be running around, - you just need to be engaged, either physically or mentally. As Victor Hugo once wrote, "A man is not idle because he is absorbed in thought. There is a visible labor and there is an invisible labor." Keep those mental wheels turning if you don't want to keep your feet moving.