Is being busy the secret to happiness?




Dan Pink points to an interesting new research finding — the happiest people are those that are very busy but don’t feel rushed:

Who among us are the most happy? Newly published research suggests it is those fortunate folks who have little or no excess time, and yet seldom feel rushed.

This really clicks with me. I love blogging but I hate being under time pressure to get it done.

I’ve posted before about how we’re happier when we’re busy. Jeremy Dean over at PsyBlog does an excellent job of distilling the important part of that same study:

This tension is very nicely demonstrated in a recent study by Hsee et al. (2010). When given the choice, participants preferred to do nothing, unless given the tiniest possible reason to do something: a piece of candy. Then they sprang into action.

Not only did people only need the smallest inducement to keep busy, they were also happier when doing something rather than nothing. It’s as if people understand that being busy will keep them happier, but they need an excuse of some kind.

Having plenty of time gives you a feeling of control and anything that increases your perception of control over a situation (whether it actually increases your control or not) can substantially decrease your stress level.

Via Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long:

Steve Maier at the University of Boulder, in Colorado, says that the degree of control that organisms can exert over something that creates stress determines whether the stressor alters the organism’s functioning. His findings indicate that only uncontrollable stressors cause deleterious effects. Inescapable or uncontrollable stress can be destructive, whereas the same stress that feels escapable is less destructive, significantly so… Over and over, scientists see that the perception of control over a stressor alters the stressor’s impact.

But heavy time pressure stresses you out and kills creativity. Low-to-moderate time pressure produces the best results.

Via The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work:

If managers regularly set impossibly short time-frames or impossibly high workloads, employees become stressed, unhappy, and unmotivated—burned out. Yet, people hate being bored. it was rare for any participant in our study to report a day with very low time pressure, such days—when they did occur—were also not conducive to positive inner work life. In general, then, low-to-moderate time pressure seems optimal for sustaining positive thoughts, feelings, and drives.

Finding “Flow” is a balance. Check out the chart below. Too much time pressure puts you in the upper left area instead of the upper right.


Your reaction to being too busy and under time pressure might be to want to do nothing. But that can drop you into the bottom left corner. And this actually makes you more unhappy than anything:

surveys “continue to show the least happy group to be those who quite often have excess time.” Boredom, it seems, is burdensome.

So stay busy. Set goals. Challenge yourself but make sure you have plenty of time so you feel in control of the situation.

This is how games feel. And games are fun.

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