Unlimited Free Time Won’t Make Us Happy

It’s that time of year — the worst time of year: February has rolled around. Everyone is either complaining about Valentine’s Day or complaining about the people who complain about Valentine’s Day. And I am caught in the three-step psychological maneuver that I experience every fifth week. First, I glance nervously at my upcoming exams and papers and start to feel nauseated. Then, I rationalize that a “seven-to-eight-page paper” won’t take too long. Finally, I go back to my true love: doing nothing (all the while perfectly aware that a research thesis won’t write itself and soon — so very soon — I will pay).

In other words, welcome to college and — judging from the results of a 2010 study by Christopher Hsee at the University of Chicago — welcome to everyday life. In Hsee’s study, researchers gave participants the choice of dropping off a package at either a location nearby or one 15 minutes away. Regardless of the final choice, the participant would receive a piece of milk chocolate.  Unsurprisingly, few people cared enough about a piece of chocolate to pick the more taxing option. 

Then Hsee really switched things up, offering milk chocolate for staying put and dark chocolate for trekking to the farther location — and not only did the majority of people take a walk, those who did were happier than those who stayed put. The results were the same when the chocolate choices were switched around, so it’s not just the seductive properties of 80-percent cacao that lured this sudden spike in activity. The participants simply needed to trick themselves into creating an incentive — even in the form of the false choice of “I would rather have dark chocolate” — to spring into action. Or, as the study’s authors put it, “It’s as if people understand that being busy will keep them happier, but they need an excuse of some kind.” 

Hsee’s study about physical idleness is both complemented and contradicted by a study on mind-wandering by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert at Harvard University. Here, the researchers used an iPhone app to prompt users to report what they were doing, what they were thinking and how they felt.Apparently, we spend nearly one-half our conscious hours thinking about something other than what we’re doing, and using time-lag analyses, Killingsworth and Gilbert concluded that a person’s mind-wandering is usually the cause of present unhappiness. The specific results are more confusing though: People are unhappiest when they’re on the computer, resting or — contrary to Hsee’s theories — working.
         In conclusion: People are unhappy when they’re idle, they’re unhappy when they’re working and they’re unhappy when they’re not thinking about what they’re doing, which is mostly resting or working.      

Happy February.