Features | From Pivot Magazine

Busy people lead better lives, new research says

Tax season stressing you out? Turns out being busy can be good for you

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Illustration of a woman's head, side profile with icons of a laptop, coffee cup and briefcaseRegardless of how objectively busy we are, studies have shown, the busier we think we are, the more important we feel. (Illustration by Sébastien Thibault)

When someone asks how I’m doing, I don’t often respond, “Good.” Instead, I say, “Busy.” Soooo busy. It’s not a banality but a brag, and before I can stop myself, my smile becomes just a little smug. I’m swamped. Slammed! Between my job, writing a second book, training on a competitive boxing team, caring for my elderly diabetic cat, cooking, cleaning and a thousand-and-one other things, I rarely have time to simply relax. And I can’t seem to shut up about it.

I’m not alone in this. If bling, designer clothes and sleek cars were yesterday’s status symbols, today’s is the appearance of busyness. Saks Fifth Avenue, for instance, sells a line of trendy, millennial-pink “I’m Very Busy” notebooks, agendas and cups. A person can buy crafty wall art and T-shirts to proclaim their busyness. Even if we aren’t literally advertising our jam-packed day, our sense of way-too-much-to-do can still became an inextricable part of our identities—whether we’re truly that busy or not. 

Researchers call this the “busy mindset”—that is, the perception that we are a Very Busy Person. Regardless of how objectively busy we are, studies have shown, the busier we think we are, the more important we feel. Other research has found that self-importance boosts self-control. Together, these findings offer surprising insights into how busy-feeling people make everyday choices: they’re likely to be consistently healthier and downright better. Forget kicking back with Netflix and a greasy pizza at the end of a long week. In theory, a busy person is more likely to chug a kale smoothie after yoga because they #DeserveIt.

“Every day, we make many decisions that involve choosing between our immediate and future well-being,” says Amitava Chattopadhyay, co-author of a new paper that examines how busyness can curb indulgence. “Do we save money for retirement, or do we splurge on a trip? Do we eat fruit or cake for dessert? When we perceive ourselves to be busy, it boosts our self-esteem, tipping the balance in favour of the more virtuous choice.”

Chattopadhyay’s research isn’t just meant to be a pat on the back for busy people. He is also a marketing professor at the international business school INSEAD, where he’s looking into how the busy mindset influences consumer habits. In its experiments, Chattopadhyay’s team reminds study participants how busy they are—what they call “activating the busy mindset.” For instance, participants in one of their studies were more likely to make better financial decisions if, before looking at long-term savings plans, they were first asked to write down three activities that kept them busy. 

These trends hold true outside of controlled environments, too. In one field study, his researchers examined a university dining hall’s receipts for one week and found that, with only minimal signage boosting the busy ego (“Good to go, for busy students!”), diners consumed significantly fewer fat calories and bought far less junk food. “We did move the needle in the real world,” he says, adding that perhaps we should stop seeing a busy mindset as a bad thing.

Despite its downer reputation, being busy has many other benefits. A 2016 study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience found that busyness can increase cognitive function. For those aged 50 to 89, it’s associated with greater processing speed, working and episodic memory, reasoning, and crystallized knowledge. In other words, having lots on the go can keep an aging person sharp. The study does allow, however, that busyness usually carries far more negative connotations, including that it’s stressful—a state of being that’s been shown, over multiple studies, to result in inferior cognitive function. So how can busyness be both good and bad?

It all depends on what’s keeping you busy, and how you perceive it. If a person’s busyness can serve “as a proxy for intense, sustained lifestyle engagement,” then its effects can be positive, the Aging Neuroscience researchers found. If we like what we’re doing, and it makes us feel good about ourselves, that sense of having a lot to do can be a sort of busy high. We make better choices; we stay invested in our lives and the world around us. Given all this, suggest the researchers of both studies, we’ve got busy all wrong. Rather than worry that our Age of Busy has turned us into burnt-out, baggy-eyed overachievers, we might instead realize how it’s good for us.

Still, my 2019 goal is to subtract, not add, to my calendar. Busy can be good, but it can also be overwhelming. It’s worth remembering that many of the upsides to being busy correlate less to our full schedules and more to how we feel about how we’ve spent our time. And, personally, I’d like to start bragging about spending a weekend in my pyjamas doing nothing more than reading a good book.