Well, that’s a complicated question, isn’t it?
If you’ve read my book Too Busy to be Happy, you might think that I’ve made some sort of mistake in the question. That maybe I’ve gotten my words twisted—but I can assure you, I haven’t.
The question of whether or not busyness brings happiness has been challenging me ever since I first came up with the concept for my book. While many of us are too busy to be happy (and once we realize we are, there’s no going back), what’s a little more complicated is whether or not some busyness brings happiness.
Many would argue it does. Having a packed social calendar, a firm exercise schedule, a challenging career—all of those items keep us busy, and most likely, they also make us happy. But that’s not guaranteed.
Take this past year, for example. As COVID-19 swept the globe, we were all forced into new routines that likely eliminated some of the activities that usually kept us busy. We could no longer meet friends for dinner or drinks, see family members for meals or occasions, commute into an office, or attend weddings or other large gatherings.
For some, that left them with an abundance of newfound free time. For others, their societal support crumbled and they were forced to manage on their own, leaving them busier than ever.
But regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, the pandemic made us all reevaluate our busyness and our happiness.
One of my favourite authors, Mark Manson, surveyed his audience late last year to understand what the change in behaviour taught his readers. There were many valuable life lessons (seriously, it’s worth a read) but what really resonated with me, was how many people found that their pre-pandemic busyness wasn’t resulting in happiness.
And, I’d bet you’re one of them.
So, here’s an exercise for you: Take a look back at your life. Pick a date. What were you doing one year ago today? Open up your calendar, phone, text message window and start scrolling. Was your calendar filled? Did you feel stressed? What was stressing you out? Were you happy? Were you busy? How do those two concepts relate?
For most of us, we’ll find that we were likely busy. Busy with social functions, sports, maybe school, maybe busy doing things with a former (or current—power to you, people!) romantic partner.
Now ask yourself: Of all the things you were “busy” with on that day, week, month or year, how many of those activities impacted where you are today and actually improved your quality of life?
What many of us will likely find is that most of those activities that kept us so busy in the past actually had no effect on our quality of life or the level of happiness we’re experiencing today.
Sure, some may have taught you a life lesson that you’ve carried with you ever since, but most of what we find “incredibly important” in the moment, turns out not to be so incredibly important down the road.
And that’s the key lesson I want to send you off with today: If in retrospect, those activities or commitments that kept you so busy a year ago or three years ago have little importance in your life today, what current activities or commitments are going to fall into that same category three years from now?
It’s exercises like these that help define our present and our future. I know you don’t want to be too busy to be happy—if you did, you wouldn’t be here. But which parts of your busyness are important and which ones bring value to your life today and will continue to bring value moving forward?
Now, take that same critical approach to your current to-do list. Think about what you’ve learned about your past and apply it to your present, and even to your future. If certain activities that kept you “busy” three years ago aren’t bringing you any happiness today, then maybe reconsider how important those activities will be in the future.
This is one of the easiest (I’m not saying easy, but easiest) ways to start trimming the fat off your current schedule. It can feel overwhelming to remove to-dos when they feel important, but as many have said, “the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour,” so if it kept you busy but didn’t make you happy then, it’s probably not going to make you happy now.