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Hectic but Happy: Why Does Being Busy Make Us Feel Good?

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This past weekend, I attended two weddings in two different parts of California. My whirlwind trip involved planes, trains, and automobiles (and a whole lot of caffeine), and while it left me utterly exhausted, the fun I had easily outweighed my tiredness. Plus, there’s just something satisfying, even invigorating, about being that busy. I like having so much on my plate; it makes me feel like I’m living a productive and happy life. (That’s also why I enjoy to-do lists so much.) But why does a filled-up social calendar have that effect?


My friend and I started talking about the emotional effects of busyness the other night. She, like I do, tends to overbook herself into burnout—and, also like I do, she enjoys it, to an extent. In fact, almost everyone I know talks about being swamped with work, social obligations, and everything else that makes the world go ’round. We speak of it with pride, even though the consequences are stress and fatigue. So what makes busyness seem so rewarding?


The Benefits of a Full Plate
Not too long after my friend and I shared our busy schedules with each other, I read about a study published in a 2010 issue of Psychological Science that found a link between happiness and busyness. Researchers at the University of Chicago asked ninety-eight college students to perform tasks that tested their motivation and their emotional reactions to being busy. In the first experiment, participants filled out surveys, then walked to one of two locations: a room next door, or a room that was fifteen minutes away, round-trip. The researchers told the students they had fifteen minutes between that survey and the next task, so which location they chose was up to them. The students were also told that there was candy in each room, as a thank-you for participating.


Slight tweaks to this experiment revealed a surprising amount about the students, and about humans in general. When the students thought that each room’s candy was the same, more of them opted to take their completed surveys to the closer room and wait out the remaining minutes idly. Only thirty-two people took the fifteen-minute trek. But when researchers said that each room held different candy, the number of participants who walked farther increased to fifty-nine. Without incentive, the majority of students preferred laziness, but even a small motivation, like a different kind of candy, was enough to get them moving.


At the end of the fifteen-minute break, the students filled out another questionnaire, this one rating how they felt during that time. People who walked to the second location—and were therefore busier—felt significantly happier than the ones who stayed close. And that remained true even when the researchers required some to walk and others to go next door. Making the most of their time, even with a mundane task, was enough to improve their mood.


It’s a Slippery Slope from Busy to Buried
Humans don’t fare well without purpose. There’s a reason why long stretches of unemployment and depression often go hand in hand: we need responsibilities to feel important and necessary, at least from an evolutionary standpoint. (Survival of the fittest, anyone?) Our society in particular values busyness as a by-product of the much-lauded Puritan work ethic, to the point that we act busier than we really are. “When necessity recedes, the busyness does not stop. It continues not only because it is a habit but because it is a ‘good’ habit,” write the authors of The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century. “And since busyness is a public virtue, a boast as well as a complaint, since people want to be seen as virtuous even in those moments when their virtues are flagging, they sometimes present a façade of busyness to the world whether they are being productive or not.”


After I read that and thought about all the instances in which I’ve used the word “busy” to describe my current state, I couldn’t help but think, Guilty as charged. I definitely feel better about myself when I have a lot going on, and my aforementioned dinner friend agrees. “It makes me feel more productive, needed, and responsible,” she shares. Another of my friends has more of a conflicting relationship with busyness, though. “It really depends,” she explains. “At best, I feel like I’m thriving, finding my niche, and making the most out of my life. At worst, I feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and even emotionally unstable.” Hmm, that sure sounds familiar …


This need to be constantly on the go seems more common among females than among men, at least among those I consulted. One guy I know thinks of a packed schedule as “draining.” As he puts it, “I know people that need to be doing something all the time. I’m not like that at all.” When I asked another male friend how he feels with a lot on his plate, he replied, “Exhausted, and like lying in bed.” However, even though both of them had that initial negative reaction to busyness, they did admit to enjoying a full schedule at least somewhat. Perhaps women thrive more under such conditions because we tend to gravitate toward multitasking, but busyness is, to an extent, emotionally and socially rewarding across genders.


Fumbling Toward Balance
After my weekend of weddings, nothing sounds more rewarding than relaxing in bed with an episode of Mad Men. Like so many people I know, I go through spurts of busyness followed by much-needed rejuvenation time. But what I should strive for is balance—spreading events out over time, rather than cramming them into a single weekend, or learning to say no to invites on occasion. As good as being busy feels (at least in the thick of it, anyway), research shows that too much of it isn’t good for us physically or emotionally.


In fact, one famous 1973 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology actually found that the busier people are, the less likely they are to help someone in need. I’d hate to think that my being too invested in personal obligations lessens my chances of being a Good Samaritan. But I also know that busyness is an oft-used excuse for being so wrapped up in your own life that you end up neglecting the people who make it special and worth living. The key is learning to embrace and enjoy doing nothing as well, and forgoing obligations for a quiet night at home once in a while. Being busy is fun and rewarding, but pampering yourself with a little R and R feels pretty great, too.

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