Thursday, July 22, 2010

Our dread of idleness

Being a hyper-purposeful person myself, I've always been attracted to the opposite pole represented by The Idler,  both the original book and the subsequent magazine whose intention is "to return dignity to the art of loafing, to make idling into something to aspire towards rather than reject."  Thus I thought this piece by Hsee et al. worth passing on. They set up experiments in which people who voluntarily choose busyness report being happier than those who voluntarily choose idleness. Further, people who are forced into busyness report being happier than those who are forced into idleness. People choose to be idle if they do not have reason to be busy, but that even a specious justification can prompt them to seek busyness.  Here is their abstract:
There are many apparent reasons why people engage in activity, such as to earn money, to become famous, or to advance science. In this report, however, we suggest a potentially deeper reason: People dread idleness, yet they need a reason to be busy. Accordingly, we show in two experiments that without a justification, people choose to be idle; that even a specious justification can motivate people to be busy; and that people who are busy are happier than people who are idle. Curiously, this last effect is true even if people are forced to be busy. Our research suggests that many purported goals that people pursue may be merely justifications to keep themselves busy.
Their (slightly edited) speculations are interesting to read:
We speculate that the concurrent desires for busyness and for justification are 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 tendency to conserve energy lingers, making people wary of expending effort without purpose.

Our research also complements recent research of Airely et al.  that suggests that people work in order to search for meaning (i.e., achievement and recognition), our study suggests that people search for meaning in order to work. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus’ punishment, imposed by Zeus, was to eternally roll a rock toward the top of a hill, never to arrive there. The research of Ariely et al. predicts that Sisyphus would have been happier if Zeus had allowed the rock to reach the top of the hill and had then recognized Sisyphus’ achievement. Our research suggests that Sisyphus was better off with his punishment than he would have been with a punishment of an eternity of doing nothing, and that he might have chosen rolling a rock over idleness if he had been given a slight reason for doing it.

Idleness is potentially malignant. If idle people remain idle, they are miserable. If idle people become busy, they will be happier, but the outcome may or may not be desirable, depending on the value of the chosen activity. Busyness can be either constructive or destructive. Ideally, idle people should devote their energy to constructive courses, but it is often difficult to predict which actions are constructive (e.g., are business investments or scientific discoveries always constructive?), and not every idle individual is capable of constructive contributions. Idle people often engage in destructive busyness (from inner-city crimes to cross-border wars); as Hippocrates observed in Decorum, “Idleness and lack of occupation tend―nay are dragged―towards evil.”

We advocate a third kind of busyness: futile busyness, namely, busyness serving no purpose other than to prevent idleness. Such activity is more realistic than constructive busyness and less evil than destructive busyness. However, as we demonstrated in the no-justification (same-candy or same-design) condition of our research, most people will not voluntarily choose futile busyness.

This is where paternalism can play a role. For example, homeowners may increase the happiness of their idle housekeepers by letting in some mice and prompting the housekeepers to clean up. Governments may increase the happiness of idle citizens by having them build bridges that are actually useless. Indeed, some such interventions already exist: Airports have tried to increase the happiness (or reduce the unhappiness) of passengers waiting at the baggage carousel by increasing the distance between the gate and the baggage claim area, forcing them to walk far rather than wait idly. Similar intentions may be applied at the societal level. Although these strategies may not be ethical, we believe that futile busyness trumps both idleness and destructive busyness.


  1. In A Philosophy of Boredom, Lars Svendsen argues on historical evidence that boredom is a part of modernism; it has only around for a few hundred years. The word didn't exist on old languages, for example, it isn't in ancient Greek literature.

    Boredom as a side effect of the modernist project of self-improvement raises an interesting question: What happened before? Admittedly, before the industrial revolution most people lived in conditions near malnourishment, so there was always the task of securing food supply, but even so, it seems likely that there was a lot of sitting around going on.

    This view roughly concurs with the biological maxim of not wasting energy. More correctly, the biological maxim is to not use energy without gain, so the apparently profligate energy expenditure of the stotting gazelle, or of humans engaging in dance or sport actually function as fitness indicators providing biologically important signals to predators and potential mates, respectively.

    What then is the modernism, biologically speaking? Perhaps, by some modernist trickery, all our activity has become sexual display to an internalised potential mate, so that we constantly interpret our activity through the eyes of that fictional other, seeking status in that imagined person's mind. And so, we cannot be still and happy.

  2. You offer some fascinating ideas!