"Busy" does not mean "Happy"

The lovely and talented Meghan Casserly recently wrote a piece entitled “If Time Is Money, Millennials Are Broke–And They Couldn’t Be Happier“.  The piece is great, but the title is a bit misleading – I’d argue that she does a fairly good job of talking about all the reasons that the millennial race to be “busy” is actually eroding a lot of their satisfaction in life.

At Swarthmore, where people love to brag about how tough the school is (hence the unofficial slogan “Anywhere else, it would have been an A”), what Casserly described was known as “misery poker”, presumably because people were constantly upping the ante.  You’ve got a five page paper to do?  Well I’ve got a ten page paper and an oral.  You get the idea.

My argument is not that young people aren’t playing the “busy” card, but that they are…and it is making them unhappy.  Misery poker is a form of negative busyness: I’m so busy, isn’t it terrible (but not really terrible, because it says I’m productive/smart/etc.)  As Casserly’s experts point out, there are positive versions, like “being busy makes us feel valuable”, but the underlying current is the ways in which busyness is actually an inauthentic remedy for larger troubles, which ultimately only leads to greater dissatisfaction.

For example, if busy = valuable, then more busy = more valuable.  And since the hedonic treadmill means that we will always acclimate to our current level of happiness, that means that in order to stay happy, we will always need to be…wait for it…more busy!  Ditto for suggestions her experts make about feeling needed, self-presentation for social credibility, and other potential theories: the crux of the argument is always that busy replaces actually being needed/popular/etc.  Busy becomes the incredibly poor coping mechanism for not actually accomplishing fulfillment of those needs.

To put it a different way, the perpetually-wise Avi Karnani once pointed out to me that many people confuse motion with progress.  He has some great hand gestures, which you’ll have to imagine, but motion is lateral movement that looks like you’re doing something but isn’t going anywhere, whereas progress is actually moving forward.  Busy may make us feel valuable/needed/popular, but because it doesn’t actually push us forward, the moment we stop moving, we are immediately unhappy because we can look back at the shore and realize that nothing has changed.

The irony is that all this motion of being “busy” is actually doubly costly: not only is the busyness not leading to genuine progress and happiness, but it holds us back from taking advantage of opportunities that would.  In college, it was the equivalent of not going to a party so you could “work on a paper” and ending up just watching TV; in life, it is saying “you are too busy” and then ending up sitting home on a Friday night.  Or worse, not staying home and instead going to a birthday party just to “put in an appearance” and have no genuine interactions of any kind.

In the end, it all comes back to authenticity.  There is such a thing as being truly busy, and it probably does make people fairly happy, provided they are busy with things that they actually want to be doing.  But that’s not what Casserly and I are talking about.  What young people are doing today doesn’t have to do with being truly busy, it has to do with the appearance of busy for busy’s sake.  And as The Shawshank Redemption points out, you can get busy living or get busy dying…busy for busy’s sake is almost certainly the latter.

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