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The Paradox of Preferring Busyness Yet Needing Justification for It

The Paradox of Preferring Busyness Yet Needing Justification for It

by John M. Jennings | Mar 25, 2024

Having an abundance of free time sounds great, especially if you feel like you are constantly short on time. But it turns out that we dread idleness. Having too much discretionary time is associated with a lower sense of well-being. In fact, as I have previously written, many of us would choose to deliver ourselves electric shocks rather than being bored.

Interestingly, even though we desire busyness, we want a justification for being busy. We tend not to choose busyness just for the sake of being busy. A fascinating study conducted on college students confirmed this conclusion.

The Justifiable Busyness Study

Researchers from the University of Chicago had college students take two surveys in a room after they had taken their phones and removed all distractions. After they completed the first survey, the students were told that the next survey wouldn’t be ready for fifteen minutes. In the meantime, they were instructed to drop the first survey off at one of two drop-off locations. The first drop box was close by—right outside the survey room. The second drop box was a 12 – 15 minute round-trip walk.

So, the participants could either:

  • Deliver the survey to the nearby location and wait out the long remaining time (the idle option) or
  • Deliver the survey to the faraway location, return, and then wait out the short remaining time (the busy option).

In both cases, participants would receive a piece of candy when they dropped off the survey as a token of appreciation. One group of students was told that the candy at each drop box was the same (milk chocolate), while another group was told that the candy at each location was different — milk chocolate at one and dark chocolate at the other. The preference for dark or milk chocolate was neutralized by telling half the students that dark chocolate was far and the other half that dark chocolate was near.

The Results

Only 32% of students picked the faraway drop location when the candy was the same, while 59% chose the far location when the candy was different. This suggests that if given a reason (even a specious one), a majority chose to be busy, but without justification, most chose idleness.

That’s pretty interesting on its own, but it gets more interesting when you consider how the choice between the close and far location affected the participants’ happiness. According to the study:

Busy participants (who walked to the faraway location) reported greater happiness than idle participants (who chose the nearby location and waited afterward), and this was true in both the same-candy condition, and the different-candy condition. These results constitute an interesting inconsistency between choice and experience: When given a choice, most individuals in the same-candy condition chose the nearby location, yet those who went farther ended up being happier. 

The study’s results suggest that people know that busyness yields happiness, but if they lack justification for busyness, they’ll choose idleness.

To ensure that the happiness boost was due to being busy rather than having a choice, the researchers performed a second study with a new set of students. They were randomly assigned to the close or far drop-off spot and then surveyed their happiness. Just like the first study, the students who were busy were happier than the group who were idle. So, yes, being busy does generate more happiness than idleness.

Why Do We Need A Reason to Be Busy?

If we know we’d generally be happy being busier, why do we need a justification to do so? The researchers speculate that the reason is rooted in evolution. “In their strife for survival, human ancestors had to conserve energy to compete for scarce resources; expending energy without purpose could have jeopardized survival. With modern means of production, however, most people today no longer expend much energy on basic survival needs, so they have excessive energy, which they like to release through action. Yet the long-formed conserve energy lingers, making people wary of expending effort without purpose.”


This fascinating study sheds light on the complex relationship between busyness, idleness, and happiness. It suggests that while we may instinctively choose idleness, engaging in purposeful activities, even if the purpose is somewhat arbitrary, can lead to greater happiness. So the next time you find yourself with some free time, consider finding a justifiable reason to stay busy – it might just boost your mood!

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