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The Trouble with Being Busy

by Christine Carter, Ph.D., author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents

“Beware the banality of a busy life.” -Socrates

Since my book Raising Happiness was published, I’ve met so many unhappy working mothers I’ve come to believe there might just be an epidemic of unhappiness in them. Studies have long shown that parents tend to be unhappier than their childless counterparts. (Seven percent unhappier, on average.) Parents tend to feel happier grocery shopping and sleeping than they do when they are with their kids.

Maybe we expect too much happiness out of child-rearing. Should we accept that kids are a lot of work, and they are necessarily going to drain the cheer right out of us? I don’t think so, actually.

One significant cause of increased unhappiness among mothers is that we are so damn busy. Everyone asks: How are you? And everyone answers: I am so busy. “We say this to one another with no small degree of pride,” writes Wayne Muller in his treatise on rest, “as if our exhaustion were a trophy, our ability to withstand stress a real mark of character. The busier we are, the more important we seem to ourselves and, we imagine, to others.”

Busy-ness does not make us happy. Muller reminds us that the Chinese symbol for busy is composed of two characters: heart and killing.

This trouble with the busy-ness of motherhood is that most of the work is instrumental. And the trouble with instrumental work is best illuminated by a famous study by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow. Csikszentmihalyi unintentionally induced what looked like text-book cases of generalized anxiety disorder in his subjects simply by instructing his subjects as follows: from the time you wake up until 9:00 PM, “we would like you to act in a normal way, doing all the things you have to do, but not doing anything that is ‘play’ or ‘non-instrumental.'”

Following these instructions for just 48 hours produced symptoms of serious anxiety—restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension-by eliminating flow and play from their lives. In other words, we get anxious when we aren’t having fun.

It isn’t just worry about our children and endless housework that make us anxious and unhappy; it’s that we aren’t actually having fun anymore. Fun, rest, relaxation, flow have been squeezed out of our lives in the pursuit of more. More sports for our kids, more homework, more driving to activities, more work so we can earn more money so we can buy more stuff. We are poisoned by the hypnotic belief, writes Muller, that “good things come only through unceasing determination and tireless effort,” and so “we can never truly rest.”

I challenge us all to systematically add fun back into our lives. Here’s how:

(1) Identify those times during the day when you feel flow. When do you feel most at play, most happy? Schedule those things into your life the way you would important meetings or doctor’s appointments.

(2) Identify the things that are making you feel crazy-busy, and cut those things out if you can. Other people might need to make some sacrifices for your sanity, too: small people with too many activities, for example.

(3) Talk to your coworkers (including your children’s other parent) and your most important supporters. Tell them what you won’t be doing, in order that you might have a chance to breathe. Consider that you might be inspiring, rather than disappointing, them.

Parenthood can be one of the most fulfilling and joyful things that we do. Science is giving us lots of clues about the things that make life happier: play, flow, mindfulness, friends, gratitude. But it is up to us to pursue those paths that will, in fact, make us happier. Perhaps then the next time someone asks me how we are, we won’t be compelled to say, “busy.”

© 2010 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

Learn how to be happy by taking the Raising Happiness Class online! Find out more here.

Pennsylvania Governor’s Conference for Women panelist Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a sociologist at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, an interdisciplinary research unit dedicated to the psychology, sociology and neuroscience of well-being. Best known for her science-based parenting advice, Dr. Carter follows the scientific literature to understand ways that we can teach children skills for happiness, emotional intelligence, and resilience. She is the author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents and she teaches online parenting classes to a global audience.

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