Many of us these days feel busier than ever, multitasking on our phones and computers as we rush from home to work to friends to bed—then do it all over again the next day. Who doesn’t long for idle days on a tropical beach?
Well, before you book your to ticket to paradise, take note: A new study suggests that people who keep busy are more likely to be happy than those who remain idle.
In the study, published in Psychological Science, researchers asked college students to take multiple surveys about their school. After completing the first survey, students could either drop it off right outside the room they were in, then wait idly until the next survey was administered, or keep busy by dropping off the survey at a location that was about 15 minutes away. Either way, they were told they’d receive a candy bar when they turned in the survey.
Perhaps not surprisingly, more students chose the closer location. However, students who kept busy by walking to the farther location reported feeling happier afterward than did the students who remained idle.
What’s more, when the researchers offered a different candy bar at the two locations—milk chocolate at one, dark chocolate at the other—they found that more people chose the farther destination, even though surveys they ran before the experiment determined that the two candy bars are equally attractive to people. Once again, the students who kept busier reported having a more positive experience.
These results suggest to the researchers that people generally prefer to keep busy, even if they think they’re supposed to prefer taking it easy. So when the choice of candy was the same at both drop-off locations, participants found it harder to justify choosing the farther location. But when the choice of candy differed between the two locations, they were able to use the candy as a justification for the longer walk, which might otherwise defy common sense.
In a variation on this experiment, when the researchers randomly assigned participants to drop off their survey at one of the two locations, people who walked the longer distance reported feeling happier afterward, even though in this case they were forced to be busy.
So if busyness makes us feel good, why did participants initially choose to be idle?
The researchers speculate that the answer may lie in our evolutionary history. Our ancestors had to conserve energy in order to compete for scarce resources. That desire to conserve energy has persisted, even though people no longer need to devote their energy to basic survival needs. So an excess of energy builds, yet we still don’t want to expend energy without any purpose.
“We don’t want to say we want to waste our energy for the sake of wasting energy,” says Christopher Hsee, the study’s lead author and a professor at the University of Chicago’s business school, “even though we would probably feel better if we did.”
In fact, Hsee and his co-authors write that people set goals in their lives for no purpose other than to justify keeping busy: “Our study suggests that people search for meaning in order to work”—not the other way around.
This doesn’t mean that a life of stress and excessive busyness is good for you—quite the opposite, in fact, according to previous research.
“We’re not saying excessive business is good,” says Hsee, “but we do find that a certain amount of busyness is better than idleness.”