The Advantage of Busywork: Happiness

“We are happier when busy but our instinct is for idleness”, says Christopher Hsee, a researcher at the University of Chicago who has been studying the link between busyness and happiness.

What this means is that work conducted merely to keep us busy (so-called busywork) can actually increase our happiness, despite what conventional wisdom suggests (Hsee’s study: Idleness Aversion and the Need for Justifiable Busyness).

This ‘futile busyness’ is defined by Hsee as “busyness serving no purpose other than to prevent idleness” and is displayed perfectly in a study Hsee discovered showing this in action: at a Houston airport inundated with complaints, managers successfully improved passengers’ well-being by employing a clever bit of reengineering:

A closer analysis of the problem […] revealed that the waiting time until luggage delivery consisted of two components: a 1-minute walking time from the aircraft to the luggage carousel and a 7-minute waiting time at the carousel […] As passengers disembarked from the aircraft and approached the carousel area, a certain fraction of them (those with hand luggage) proceeded directly to the taxi stand, boarded a taxi, and commenced their working day; those waiting at the carousel were afforded the opportunity for seven minutes of watching passengers who disembarked after them start their business day before them […]

The solution to this problem was to deliberately reinsert delays in the system. The aircraft disembarking location was moved outward from the main terminal, and the most distant carousel was selected for delivery of luggage, so the total walk time was increased from one to six minutes. After this insertion of delay was successfully completed and the system was perceived to be more socially just, passenger complaints dropped to nearly zero.

via The Browser