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100 Things You Should Know About People: #70 — People Are Happier Busy And With A Challenge



Picture of a bee with the words "Busy Bee"

Consider this scenario: You just landed at an airport and now you have to walk to the baggage claim to pick up your luggage. It takes you 12 minutes to walk there. When you arrive your luggage is coming onto the carousel. How impatient do you feel?

Contrast that with this scenario: You just landed at an airport, and the walk to the luggage carousel takes 2 minutes. But then you stand around waiting 10 minutes for your luggage to appear. How impatient do you feel now? In both cases you it took you 12 minutes to pick up your luggage, but chances are you are much more impatient, and much more unhappy in the second scenario where you have to stand around and wait.

The paradox — Research by Christopher Hsee and colleagues shows that you are happier when you are busy. This is somewhat of a paradox. In I write about the research that shows that people are actually lazy. Unless people have a reason for being active, they choose to do nothing, thereby conserving energy. But doing nothing makes people impatient and unhappy.

We love a challenge — Hsee asked participants to study a bracelet. Then he gave them the option of either spending fifteen minutes waiting with nothing to do (they thought they were waiting for the next part of the experiment), or spending the same time taking the bracelet apart and re-building it while waiting. Some of the participants were given the option of rebuilding it into its original configuration, and others were given the option to re-assemble the bracelet into a different design.

Happier when busy — Participants who had the option of re-building the bracelet as it was before, preferred to just sit idly. But the participants who were told they could re-assemble the bracelet into a new design, preferred to work on the bracelet rather than sit idle. Those who spent the fifteen minutes busy with the bracelet, reported feeling happier than those who sat idle.

What do you think? Why are people unhappy when they are lazy? Why do they tend to want to be lazy?

And if you like to read the research:

Hsee, C. K., Yang, X., & Wang, L. (2010). Idleness aversion and the need for justified busyness. Psychological Science. 21(7), 926–930.


4 responses to “100 Things You Should Know About People: #70 — People Are Happier Busy And With A Challenge”

  1. Gavin Avatar

    Could it be down to passengers being forced to walk to get their baggage? As it’s forced and not an option, do they prefer to be distracted during their wait even if the distraction is walking than to have to stand around doing nothing? If people had the choice they would probably be lazy and get their luggage straight off the plane and not have to walk anywhere to get it. If you have the choice you probably choose laziness, if you have no choice you probably choose distraction.

    It sounds a bit like the story (urban myth?) that a company reduced complaints about how long their elevators took to work by installing mirrors in the elevator waiting spaces and doing nothing to the elevators themselves. People became more occupied by looking at each other (on the sly) and themselves instead of thinking about how long they were waiting.

    Could this be used on websites/apps if something has to be loaded up or downloaded? Perhaps popping up a screen that has a funny anecdote on it would reduce user’s perception of waiting for the app to load or document to download?

  2. Rob Bartlett Avatar
    Rob Bartlett

    How do you define busy? Am I not be busy while daydreaming?
    How do you define lazy?

    Some of the “laziest” people at work are the busiest (even hardest working). They do repetitive, even cumbersome, tasks without bothering to think of better ways of accomplishing the goal. The challenge to improve the process is simply not be intrinsically valuable to them. They just don’t care [enough]. You take such a person and they might jump through extreme hoops to host the perfect theme party or find the perfect birthday gift – challenging and hardly lazy.

    So it has to be the right kind of challenge. A worthwhile reward at the end can be a great motivator. A challenge that includes tasks we enjoy is better. However, the kind of challenge that can induce flow state is maybe the ultimate drive.

    I think we are unhappy when we are insufficiently satisfied with the task at hand.

  3. Danny @ Firepole Marketing Avatar

    Hey Gavin, I think you’re spot on, and those are great ideas. :)

  4. Ron Avatar

    I am an Army veteran and witness and experience this first hand. “Hurry up and wait” is a common military euphemism for being rushed to do something that doesn’t happen for hours or even days following all the rushed preparation. It is during these wait periods of having nothing to do but wait is the source of major disgruntleness among soldiers. In my civilian job, I am personally and professionally happiest when I am busy building something of value for others and most unahappy when there is nothing but a bunch of make work that doesn’t matter to anyone if it is completed or not.

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