Busy bodies, happy minds


With unemployment idling near 10%, the negative effect of job loss on mental health has assumed a sharp relevance. Losing work has been linked to depressive symptoms, heavy alcohol use and even long-term psychological damage.

But research suggests that loss of income explains only part of this pain. The rest has something to do with the deep connection people forge between themselves and their work.

In several recent studies, social scientists have zeroed in on why paychecks alone can’t explain the link between work and well-being. The evidence shows that people can find meaning in seemingly insignificant jobs and that even trivial tasks make us far happier than no tasks at all.

“We become very dedicated to things it would be hard to be dedicated to if we were perfectly rational,” says behavioral scientist Dan Ariely, author of “The Upside of Irrationality,” published in June. “It turns out you can give people lots of meaning in lots of ways, even small ones.”

In a study published in 2008, Ariely and two collaborators found that people form attachments to their work with great ease. For the experiment, research subjects were paid $2 to build a 40-piece Lego model. When they finished, they were offered a bit less money to build another. This sequence continued until the subject felt the work was no longer worth the reward.

For some subjects, the completed Lego models accrued on the desk in front of them. For others, the finished models were disassembled before their eyes — part of an attempt to reduce the work’s meaning. These subjects were known as the Sisyphus group, named for the mythical king sentenced to eternally push a boulder up a mountain only to have it slip back down just before reaching the top.

In the end, those in the Sisyphus group built significantly fewer models. They also stopped working when compensation reached $1.40, while the other group continued to work until payment neared $1. Economically speaking, those who found their task meaningless demanded about 40% higher wages than those who witnessed the fruits of their labor.

“Meaning is cheap, so to speak,” the researchers write in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, “but ignoring the dimension of meaning may be quite expensive, for employer and for society.”

Building off the Sisyphus concept, a team of behavioral researchers led by Christopher Hsee of the University of Chicago recently examined whether people truly enjoy being busy or prefer to do nothing at all.

During the study, test subjects completed a survey, then chose whether to submit it to a nearby box or one that was 15 minutes away. Some were told they would receive the same reward — a piece of chocolate — at either box. Others were told a different type of chocolate was available at the remote location. All subjects reported their levels of happiness after the experiment.

The results, published online in Psychological Science in June, offer an intriguing glimpse at human motivation. Even though most subjects needed an excuse to walk farther — in this case, the better chocolate — all subjects were happier having done so. This remained the case even when subjects were forced to take the longer walk in a follow-up experiment.

The findings suggest that, although people often yield to idleness, deep down they seek excuses to stay busy, because busyness is happiness. However much Sisyphus rued his meaningless job, the authors conclude, he would have been even more miserable with no job at all.

“Busy people are happier, even if they are forced to be busy,” Hsee says. “We believe that people may well be happier when building bridges to nowhere than being idle, especially if they are given a justification for building the bridges.”

Perhaps that’s true only if the bridge gets finished. Drawing meaning or pleasure from a task may be partly conditional on completing it, says Michael Norton, who studies consumer psychology at Harvard Business School.

Working with Ariely and Daniel Mochon, who examines consumer behavior at UC San Diego’s Rady School of Management, Norton recently documented the so-called Ikea effect, named for the store that requires customers to assemble their own furniture. The researchers found that when people bid on their own creations at an auction, they vastly overvalue them — sometimes they even judge them to be as valuable as similar works done by an expert. But while the Ikea effect suggests that people enjoy their work and see themselves in it, the effect disappears when a task fails.

“If you put in effort and you’re busy and nothing comes of it, you’re not nearly as happy,” Norton says.

That factors beyond income induce people to work doesn’t surprise psychologist Edward Deci of the University of Rochester. Years of research on motivation led Deci and colleague Richard Ryan to develop what’s called the self-determination theory, which states that a successful workplace will foster feelings of autonomy, competence and partnership.

The flip side, says Deci, is that work environments failing to meet these needs will have a negative effect on overall wellness.

“We want to feel like what we’re accomplishing has meaning to the world,” Deci says.

To some extent, Hsee argues, the pursuit of meaningful work is a remnant of the days when human exertion led directly to survival. Modern production made securing food and shelter less strenuous, so people shifted their energy elsewhere. But the ancestral urge to link effort and purpose endured.

“If their survival needs are met, people would prefer to find work that’s meaningful,” says psychologist David Blustein of Boston College, author of “The Psychology of Working.” But with the current hard times, “a fair number of unemployed people are more set to take anything that will pay the bills and get them health insurance.”