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Does keeping busy really make us happy? by Philip Hesketh

Almost always, anyway.

There's something about starting a new project that provides us all with a genuine rush of adrenaline and enthusiasm to see the job done. So, the big question is, does keeping busy make us happy? Actually, there are much bigger questions but I've only got 600 words so we'll stick with that one.

For many of us, this first week of September is when we plan what we want to achieve in the months up to Christmas. The little cherubs are safely back in someone else's care, the last sun has finally set on a remarkable British summer of triumphs and festivities, and to top it all the car got through its MOT first time. Oh joy of joys. As we gently ease ourselves back into work, refreshed and rejuvenated, many of us look forward to being 'busy' once more. Like busy bees or worker ants going about our business with gusto. Or a particularly busy spider with lots of webs to spin. Or an antelope with quite a lot on. (Note to ed: delete this animal based analogy. I thought I was onto something but it faded badly)

Much of the development of modern civilisation can be credited to our very human habit of wanting to keep busy. For instance, Rome wasn't built in a day; they really took their time. In fact, the Coliseum still isn't finished. Science, art, philosophy, technology, sport, commerce: it's not just necessity that's the mother of invention, it's also boredom.

But there's a very real paradox between our desire to be active and our love of being inactive. This is ably demonstrated in a 2010 study by Chris Hsee of Chicago University. He discovered that, given the choice, people preferred to do nothing, unless given the tiniest possible reason to do something: like chocolate.
Then they sprang into action.
What's more, not only did they require just the smallest inducement to keep busy, they were also happier. It's as if we understand that being busy will make us happy, but we need an excuse of some kind.

So is the secret to a happy life to keep busy? Well not quite. Unfortunately, just being busy isn't enough. That's because our minds can wander just as easily when we're busy as when we're idle. We know this because in 2010 Harvard University studied the activities of 2,250 adults at random intervals. Via their phone, participants were asked to report how they felt and what they were doing at any particular moment. It was discovered that half the time people's minds were wandering from whatever they were doing—43% to pleasant topics, 27% to unpleasant topics and the rest to neutral topics. The only time their minds weren't wandering was when they were having sex. Then it was their hands, presumably.

The interesting thing was that thinking about neutral and unpleasant topics both made people considerably less happy than their current activity, whatever they were doing. And even when thinking happy thoughts, they were no happier than when fully engaged with their current activity.

So, the bottom line? Being mindful is a good thing and paying attention to whatever you're doing right now is likely to make you happier than letting your mind wander off. What's more, finding a reason to be active is likely to make you feel better than sitting around idle. So being busy does make us happier, as long as we can stop our mind wandering. And that means having a purpose. So this autumn make sure you know your purpose.

And get busy.