Studies find busy people are happier than idle people

Why do you do an activity? To earn money? Feel successful? Beat boredom? There are plenty of reasons why we do things. Professor Christopher Hsee and colleagues, at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, say their studies suggest that the deeper reason we do activities is because we hate being idle. People need a reason to be busy, and without a reason they choose to be idle — yet even a false reason can motivate them to be busy. The researchers also say busy people are happier than idle people.

The idle vs busy tests

In the studies 98 college students completed two questionnaires. After finishing the first questionnaire they were told it would be 15 minutes before they could start the next one.

Students were given the choice of dropping their first completed questionnaire at one of either two locations – just outside the room (lazy option) or about a 12-minute return walk away (busy option). Either the same or different types of chocolate bars were offered as a reward at the two locations.

If the same snack bar was offered at both locations, most students (68%) chose the lazy option. If a different bar was offered at each location, then most (59%) chose the busy option.

In both studies those who walked the longer distance said they felt happier than those who sat waiting outside the exam room. This result supports Hsee’s theory that we’re happier when we’re busy.

The study was repeated, but this time the students were not given a choice of drop-off point – they were allocated either the busy or idle option. The same outcome occurred, that is the students given the busy option felt happier.

In a change to the first study, students were asked to assess a bracelet. They had a choice – spend 15 minutes sitting waiting being idle, or take the bracelet apart and rebuild it. Those given the option of rebuilding the bracelet into its original design largely chose to sit idle. This result is consistent with having an instinct for being idle.

Those students told they could re-make the bracelet into a second, equally attractive and useful design tended to re-make the bracelet. An excuse, however shallow, for activity appears to motivate us to do something. As before, those who spent the 15 minutes being busy said they felt happier than those who sat idle.

Professor Hsee said: “When given a choice between busyness and idleness, more people will choose busyness if there is a justification than if there is not, even if the justification is specious”.

“Busy people are happier than idle people, regardless of whether they choose to be busy or are forced to be busy.”


I believe many people keep busy to have a sense of purpose, and feel that they are achieving their goals. Being busy can help us feel important, needed and worthwhile, and helps prevent boredom — which all boost our happiness.


Professor Hsee and colleagues’ article is published in the July 2010 issue of the journal Psychological Science.

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