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Keeping Busy is Good For You

Posted 01/04/2011

My days, probably like many of yours, are extraordinarily busy, and they’ve been that way for decades. I start early, end late, and it does seems as if the day goes by in a finger snap. Weekends, for most of us, is catch-up time for all the stuff we couldn’t squeeze in on weekdays.

Sometimes, as we catch our breath, we may ask ourselves, “All this stuff I’m doing–this running around, this gerbil-on-a-wheel existence–is this good for me? Would I be better off at Walden Pond?” (A myth actually. Thoreau had a lot to do in the woods every day.)

Psychology researchers think they have an answer based on an interesting experiment they set up and recently published. A group of volunteers was given a survey to complete, with a promised reward (a box of candy) when they were finished. The only catch was the volunteers had to wait 15 minutes between survey completion and candy collection.

To pass those minutes, volunteers were given a choice: either hang around and wait where they took the survey or walk to a survey drop-off point 15 minutes away and return for their candy.

Then, when they picked up their candy (waiters and walkers alike), they were given a second survey to complete and drop off immediately.

By carefully framing the questions in the second survey, researchers discovered that the volunteers who walked back and forth were distinctly happier than those who stayed and waited–even though the effort of walking was itself pointless. Being “busy,” the researchers concluded, is emotionally better for you, even if your work is like Sisyphus, who endlessly rolled a rock up a hill, watched as it rolled back down, and then started over.

Interestingly, many participants didn’t readily volunteer for the 15-minute hike unless the candy they received was “nicer” than that given to those who simply waited. In other words, people needed some sort of emotional justification to make the trip.

Conclusion? People essentially like being busy, even doing “busy work,” if there’s some gain somewhere, whether it’s candy, a paycheck, a clean house, or money raised for a charitable cause.

Clearly there’s a happy medium here. Protracted idleness likely can lead to depression, but stress-producing busyness isn’t a good idea either. You can work on your job and be an active volunteer for good causes, but being Mother Theresa on speed doesn’t help anybody.

It’s a new year, and time to reflect on your own life. Like most everything, balance is key.

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