Is Busy Work the Key to Happiness?

Doing something -- anything -- is better than doing nothing at all

Feel like you’re running around all the time without a minute to yourself? Though we may complain and wish we weren’t so busy, new research suggests we actually enjoy -- and would be miserable without -- our over-packed schedules. The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, finds that people who keep themselves occupied are happier than those who are idle. Even more surprising, the researchers found that it didn’t matter if people were pursuing their own ambitions or being forced to complete mindless assignments. Everyone who was engaged in some activity was more content than those who had nothing to do. Still, as most of us know from experience, when given the option to do something meaningless or do nothing at all, the majority of us will still choose to do nothing.

For the study, researchers from the University of Chicago recruited 98 volunteers and told them that they would be filling out a series of surveys. During that time they would be allowed to do nothing else, and had to leave all personal belongings -- which might otherwise serve as distractions -- at home. Once volunteers completed the first survey, they were told that the second questionnaire would not be ready for another 15 minutes. In the meantime, they were given the option to either wait idly in the classroom, or walk 15 minutes round-trip to drop off their surveys. Even though most people elected to sit and wait, those who made the round-trip walk reported greater happiness during that time than those who remained idle.

Since research shows that exercise -- even a brief walk -- can boost mood, I wondered how useful this experiment was. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have some people fill out surveys and have others sit around waiting to fill them out? Luckily, the researchers conducted a second set of experiments where participants, who had each been given a bracelet, were asked to sit and wait for 15 minutes. They were given the option of disassembling and reassembling the bracelet while they waited. Again, most people chose to sit and do nothing. But those who reconstructed the piece of jewelry reported feeling happier while they were waiting than those who had nothing to do.

The authors of the study theorize that instead of working to find meaning in life, people actually look for meaning in order to keep busy. Though I can’t speak for everyone, my life does support that belief. I’m happier when I’m busy, as long as the activity is constantly changing. When my work is no longer engaging, I begin pondering what I want out of life, so I can find something that will fulfill me again -- at least for the short-term.

I can’t help but wonder where meditation falls within this study, if life is little more than an hourglass that needs to be filled with busy work. Buddhist meditation is the renouncement of all that -- it teaches followers to be content while doing absolutely nothing. Maybe staying busy is one way to stay happy, but learning how to be happy while doing nothing could also make us feel better in the long run.

If staying busy keeps us happy, should we always be doing something or should we learn how to be happy when idle? Chime in below.

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