Saturday, July 31, 2010

The happiness of being busy

"Forced to wait for fifteen minutes at the airport luggage carousel leaves many of us miserable and irritated. Yet if we'd spent the same waiting time walking to the carousel we'd be far happier. That's according to Christopher Hsee and colleagues, who say we're happier when busy but that unfortunately our instinct is for idleness. Unless we have a reason for being active we choose to do nothing - an evolutionary vestige that ensures we conserve energy.
Given that being busy makes us happier but that our instinct is for idleness, Hsee's team say there is a case for encouraging what they call 'futile busyness,' that is: 'busyness serving no purpose other than to prevent idleness. Such activity is more realistic than constructive busyness and less evil than destructive busyness.'
The researchers proceed to argue that, unfortunately, most people will not be tempted by futile busyness, so there's a paternalistic case for governments and organisations tricking us into more activity: 'houseowners may increase the happiness of their idle housekeepers by letting in some mice and prompting the housekeepers to clean up. Governments may increase the happiness of idle citizens by having them build bridges that are actually useless.' In fact, according to Hsee's team, such interventions already exist, with some airports having deliberately increased the walk to the luggage carousel so as to reduce the time passengers spend waiting idly for luggage to arrive."
From: British Psychological Society Digest

Comment: I am not sure about the government doing us a favour by wasting our time. It depends on the opportunity cost. When you get off an aircraft there is not much else to do airside so I can see the merits of a good stretch of the legs. Pretty much anything beats spending time in the ghastly baggage hall in Dublin Airport. But when there are alternatives, I would rather decide for myself how to spend my time. And what will the housekeeper or even the parlour maid think when they discover that you have deliberately let vermin in just to keep them busy? The butler will never hear the end of it.

Hsee CK, Yang AX, & Wang L (2010). Idleness aversion and the need for justifiable busyness. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 21 (7), 926-30

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