Wednesday, 21 July 2010

We're happier when busy but our instinct is for idleness

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.

Consider Hsee's first study. His team offered 98 students a choice between delivering a completed questionnaire to a location that was a 15-minute round-trip walk away, or delivering it just outside the room and then waiting 15 minutes. A twist was that either the same or different types of chocolate snack bar were offered as a reward at the two locations.

If the same snack bar was offered at both locations then the majority (68 per cent) of students chose the lazy option, delivering the questionnaire just outside the room. By contrast, if a different (black vs. white) bar was offered at each location then the majority (59 per cent) chose the far away 'busy' option. This was the case even though earlier research showed both snack bar options were equally appealing, and even though the location of the two snack bar types was counterbalanced across participants. In other words, Hsee said, the students' instinct was for idleness, but when they were given a specious excuse for walking further, most of them took the busy option. Crucially, when asked afterwards, the students who'd taken the walk reported feeling significantly happier than the idle students, consistent with Hsee's theory that we're happier when busy (a repeat of the study in which students were allocated without choice to the idle or busy condition led to the same outcome - the busier students felt happier).

In a variant of this first study, students asked to evaluate a bracelet had the option of either spending fifteen minutes waiting time sitting idle or spending the same time disassembling the bracelet and rebuilding it. Those given the option of rebuilding it into its original configuration largely chose to sit idle - consistent with our having an instinct for idleness. By contrast, those told they could re-assemble the bracelet into a second, equally attractive and useful design tended to take up the challenge - again, an excuse, however superficial, for activity seems to be all it takes to spur us on. As before, those who spent the fifteen minutes busy subsequently reported feeling happier than those who sat idle.

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: 'housekeepers 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.
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ResearchBlogging.orgHsee 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 PMID: 20548057

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

26 comments:

  1. Finally, a scientific explanation for the popularity of email. Neat ideas!

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  2. Anonymous3:47 am

    We have - especially the more integrated of us - a propensity for layered differentiation. Liken it to staged degrees of separation in math progressions.

    Differentiation from the root cause in a Fibonacci Sequence, leads to that cause scaling to its effects, through space and time. Factor in shifts in strong to weak inversions, through multidimensional scale, and the axioms become even more interesting.

    I like the application of 'deficiency' for weak force, and 'proficiency' in strong. The consistency for this modular, scalar flux, makes the math parsimonious for the better educated.

    Hence, one could easily plug in 'idle', or 'rest', just as efficiently as completing the axiom with 'busy', or 'fight'.

    So why would a consistent, sliding scale range of communication, be too much of a non-sequitur to the next logical sequitur?

    If the axiological cyclce needs to be broken, in order to survive! Necessity is the mother of invention? Maslow would be proud ;-)

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  3. This explains why so many older people continue to grow fruit and vegetables and to cook as if they still had a young family at home.

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  4. This is maybe one piece in the puzzle of why people know they "should" exercise/read improving books/cook fresh food from scratch/walk locally instead of driving etc etc but usually don't (unless, as above, they have even the smallest but apparently valid reason - and is curiosity a part of the validity of that reason?).
    What are the other parts in that puzzle? I am very interested in why people DON'T adopt habits that they know are good for them and will make them feel better/happier/more productive.

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  5. Anonymous3:20 pm

    I always knew this about myself - good to know that I'm not alone. :)

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  6. Anonymous3:32 pm

    Futile business = video games.

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  7. this is why i feel better taking a longer route than sitting in traffic

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  8. i disagree that the subjects were ACTUALLY happier. They may have thought they were happier, but this could easily be explained by the fact that culturally, busyness is seen as good and idleness is seen as bad...this is a taught concept from a very young age.

    many people simply have never been taught or given permission to enjoy idleness from a young age.

    Now I don't think people can be idle all the time... we need purpose in life. But I believe there is an assumption in the analysis that is better explained by a taught cultural phenomena then the subject having an absolute emotional experience.

    I guess one could argue that whether or not it is culturally taught is irrelavent...but if you start designing tasks where unneeded busyness is incorporated assuming this is how to make people happier, then you would be wrong...people will only think they are happier...and that experience would soon fall by the wayside and happiness decrease as people make the valid conclusion that tasks they were doing had no real value and shortcuts would be sought.

    I bet if you did this study in a coutry were idleness is encouraged...such as countries that use meditation as a valid outlet...like the southeast asia countries, you would get a different result.

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  9. Anonymous7:22 pm

    I wouldn't be surprised if these experimental results were true to reality, but from this summary, it sounds like these experiments were horribly designed. Happier walking 15-minutes to get a candy bar? If these students are like most image conscious guilt-driven Americans, they were happier to balance getting a treat with an activity they thought made them deserve that treat. I'm not sure what that has to do with just being "busy"; in fact, this is the opposite of just being busy- its doing something quite deliberate to reach an outcome desirable to you. Same with "redesigning" the bracelet.

    Am I missing something here?

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  10. Anonymous at 7.22pm - I think the point you're missing is why, if it's so obvious* that walking to get the snack bar will be more rewarding, did more students not take this option when the bars at each location were the same? The researchers think the reason is our instinct for idleness. However, they say that all it takes is a specious excuse to prompt us to be more active/busy.

    *(a detail I did omit was that the researchers surveyed some other students to see if they expected the 'more busy' option to lead to more happiness, and they did - so it's not that people don't realise that the busier option will leave them feeling better, it's just that without a more practical reason, no matter how weak/specious, most people opt to be idle).

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  11. Anonymous8:42 pm

    qwerty - how is perceived happiness different than true happiness? This can only be defined on an individual level. And individuals are part of their culture. If the individuals are left in their culture and feel happy, it would seem to me they are happy.

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  12. Anonymous10:31 pm

    I am not convinced at all that being busy MAKES people happy. Those students that decided to keep themselves busy, were probably happy in general. Happy ppl tend to be busier/more energetic than depressed/not happy ppl.

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  13. Anonymous4:18 am

    @qwerty: whatever the root causes of my happiness, surely it is a state of mind, from which it follows that if i think i'm happy, then i actually am happy.

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  14. Anonymous at 10.31PM: I think you're forgetting that the researchers had a condition in which participants were allocated to the busy or idle condition (rather than choosing themselves) - in this case the students placed in the busier condition still ended up happier.

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  15. qwerty piqued my interest

    "I disagree that the subjects were ACTUALLY happier. They may have thought they were happier, but..."

    I wonder.... what is the difference between thinking you are happy or actually being happy

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  16. "what is the difference between thinking you are happy and actually being happy"...

    Well I can only offer a reversed cliche for my belief that of what causes internal states...which is..."believing is seeing, not seeing is believing"... on the one hand thinking you are happy can be seen as a response to an external stimuli...you are taught to be happy when you are busy and that this is good.

    But if you maintain a belief of happy with persistence you are happy...then the external stimulu is generally irrelevant with a persistence of directed thought(except of course in traumatic situations, which I would believe would be hard for anyone to maintain a stable internal state).

    The point of all this conjecture is that many people believe that external stimulu and changes thereof determine internal experience, and I disagree...I believe the majority have been taught to follow this paradigm but that it is in error and that we can just as easily create our internal experience with persistence of thought and that this is better and healthier for all.

    So if I relate this back to the article, with my belief...the research becomes an exercise in the best way to manipulate individuals and their responses in a specific situation. Is there where psychology has to go? I don't know...I am sure that corporations will pay for this knowledge though.

    At any rate when I originally read this article, this concept just jumped out in my mind...hence my original post.

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  17. John D12:37 pm

    I have spent most of my life trying to avoid 'work' and up until about 12 years ago (when I became a Psychology teacher) idleness really was not a problem for me. In fact work (of any kind) was my main problem. I really did feel abnormal as I realised that I seemed to be the only one without any kind of work ethic. Idleness is now a problem though. I feel unhappy in the long summer holidays UNLESS I am sitting on a beach doing nothing in which case I revert back to my old 'idle is good state'. Whilst this was an excellent experiment I think it disallows for other external variables such as sunlight, lapping waves, other layabouts etc. Would I eventually become unhappy only sitting on a beach idling my life away? If some one would like to fund this further research I would be happy to volunteer. I suggest a two year longitudinal study.

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  18. This is probably why smart-phones are so popular. You never really are truly idling. I've been able to wait in lines for hours without a care, because I can busy my self.

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  19. Anonymous11:12 am

    Build useless bridges? Oh my f*cking god. In a world, where there is so much needed for opening people's eyes to important issues, and with the knowledge raising their action potential and responsibility, let's just build some useless bridges and litter more, so people don't get idle. Makes me think of all the experiments, with results torn out of context, inflated, dogmatized and gotten into hands of a clueless persons wielding an executive power.
    (One more thing - building bridges just for building bridges, or in fact any of the work, when one get's to know it's "just for work" (which is usually not so hard) is hardly justifiable busyness, and probably will spawn a jolts of (justifiable) reactance).

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  20. Anonymous5:58 pm

    Anonymous at 7.22pm
    I think you're spot on. We're building up a guilt complex that says you shouldn't have the "unhealthy treat" unless you've done some physical activity for it.

    It would be interesting to see how different "rewards" would impact the test. $10 vs. $1 dollar cash, 10 minute massage, etc

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  21. Anonymous6:11 pm

    Why is idleness so tempting even when we know it's not making us happy? Instinct, temptation? How/where to start unravelling this?

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  22. Anonymous6:23 pm

    And creating useless things does not that lead to feelings of being senseless, pointless and eventually unhappiness?

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  23. Anonymous5:15 am

    Of course we're happier when we're busy; it means we don't have time to think of our problems.

    eg. What would be running through the participants head whilst sitting idly; 'OMG, I'm so bored, la de da, WAITING'. They become primarily self-focused (in also - a key issue - being alone - I assume they were not accompanied) which generally leads to the negative.

    However, on the walk participants would be conscious of their surroundings and thinking externally. They would not have time to wallow in their thoughts.

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  24. I totally agree with the last comment. I believe that idleness makes people think of their problems so just keeping themselves busy is a way of fooling themselves. Does anyone know of any other study on idleness and busyness? I'm now doing a research on futile busyness- why do people get engaged in activities even when the exterior conditions are not favorable for a constructive activity (like reading in the train) or when actually being busy is just getting tem exhausted without any reward...I'd love to hear your comments!

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  25. Anonymous2:48 pm

    I found a student who had a teenage relative that used artificial drugs in order to
    get taller (they were administered by the boy’s parents). The boy grew an artificially
    thick mustache and beard. It was not good for the boy because people thought that he was
    older than he really was. This drug was most likely a hormone. It illustrates that the
    Chinese, at least to some extent, are willing to use artificial methods to change the way they look.
    For the first time someone told me that the entire athletic system of China, in
    which the government controls athletic training, makes it so that the success of a Chinese
    athlete directly reflects the government. This contributes to the fact that Chinese athletes
    are under more pressure than athletes from other countries.

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  26. Anonymous9:05 am

    Recently I have found a job where, lying on the sofa, I can earn my pay by working with the notebook on my lap. This combination of activity and idleness makes work much easier. It seems to me that two instincts are satisfied at the same time: The desire to save energy, and the pursuit for self-sufficiency. It has turned out to be my favourite way of working!

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