Being forced to wait for fifteen minutes at the airport luggage carousel leaves many of us miserable and irritated. 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.
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 PMID: 20548057