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(Published: 2010-07-25)

Did you know that in 1839 it was considered elegant to take a tortoise out walking?

I came across that tidbit on the “Idler” website, The “Idler” is a bi-annual, UK-based magazine that campaigns against the work ethic. Founded in 1993 by two Brits, the magazine’s mission is to “return dignity to the art of loafing.” The radical, thought provoking, (and yes, humorous) magazine epitomizes the paradox espoused by Oscar Wilde: “to do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world.”

Many of you are probably looking forward to doing exactly that…nothing. The lazy days of summer are here; vacations loom. As you lounge about in your hammock, here’s something for you to consider when the dread of getting up and doing something encroaches.

Idleness may not be all that good for you. In fact, it can make you miserable. Researchers speculate that this fact is rooted in human evolution. In their strife for survival, our ancestors had to be idle at times in order conserve energy to compete for scarce resources; expending energy without purpose (i.e. keeping busy) could have jeopardized survival.

Today, thanks to modern means of production, most of us don’t expend great amounts of true physical energy on basic survival needs. Because our long-formed tendency to conserve energy lingers, we end up storing excessive energy, which is best released through action. Couch potatoes, are you listening?

There’s a fascinating study by Christopher Hsee that shows that if idle people become busy, they will be happier. Ideally, we should devote our energy to constructive busyness (building & creating) as opposed to destructive busyness (inner-city crime and cross-border wars). Hsee and his team denote a third kind of busyness, called ‘futile busyness,’ which they describe as “busyness that serves no purpose other than to prevent idleness.” It sounds crazy, but knowing that might help you up your personal happiness quotient.

Hsee’s team offers this example. If we are forced to wait for fifteen minutes at the airport luggage carousel for our bags we feel miserable and irritated by the time they arrive. Experts say we’d be far happier if we spent the same amount of time walking to the carousel (being futilely busy) as we did waiting (being idle.) This actually explains why some airports have deliberately increased the walk to the luggage carousel, thereby reducing the time passengers spend waiting idly for luggage to arrive. Now I know why I unconsciously opt for walking the concourse, as opposed to taking the moving walkway.

I’m curious. Do YOU have a favorite form of futile busyness? If you have an idle moment, would you mind emailing me with your examples? (

Then again, you could just find a tortoise that would enjoy a good walk.

Tortoise walking

Wait idly, or walk?

Robyn Waters is president and founder of RW Trend, LLC. She is the author of The Trendmaster’s Guide: Get a Jump on What Your Customer Wants Next, and The Hummer and the Mini: Navigating the Contradictions of the New Trend Landscape. Learn more about Robyn at All Rights Reserved.

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