02/25/2013 06:03 pm ET Updated Apr 27, 2013

Why Are We so Busy?

I have to consciously remind myself that sometimes it's all right to think about absolutely nothing. When tasked with something as simple as waiting for a subway, I have an uncontrollable urge to pull out my iPhone to check the news. Even on the treadmill, I feel compelled to read my notes for class. Any idle second feels like precious time slipping away. Every hour is filled with work, activities, and "productiveness."

At Harvard, I sometimes feel as if people base their happiness off of their busy-ness. There is a feeling of insecurity that arises when there is spare time in the day. Am I not doing enough? Why are all my peers so much busier than me?

The frenzy of productiveness is a safe haven where we are so busy that there is no time to question the motives of what we are doing, or to wonder what to do with a moment of reprieve. Filling up every second gives us a sense of security that we are being successful and working towards something. Yet, that something -- as important as it is -- always seems to ruin our free moment.

So why must we be so busy? Although I am just a student, the desire for constant busy-ness is a characteristic of most high achievers, regardless of age. Harvard economists have compared the working hours and life satisfaction of Americans to Europeans, and have concluded that Europeans work to live while Americans live to work.

"Americans work 50 percent more than the Germans, the French and the Italians." According to research in the Journal of Happiness Studies, Americans maximize happiness by working while Europeans maximize happiness through leisure. Economic theories explain that lower tax rates in the U.S. and more opportunities of social mobility provide higher incentives to work. This seems to confirm that Americans will be pre-disposed to love work more than Europeans. However, the research from the Journal of Happiness Studies includes a surprising finding that Europeans actually value the process of work more than Americans, while Americans are more concerned with the outcome of work -- success.

Even though economic studies must be taken with a grain of salt, the research illuminates an interesting point. If we are constantly working towards success, convincing ourselves that ultimate happiness will be attained when we reach that point, when will we ever slow down?

The "American Dream" concept is one of the culprits of our 24/7-work culture: hard work makes dreams come true. We are all trying to reach that pinnacle of success, and working around the clock is what will get us there.

Although hard work and efficiency are undoubtedly key factors in success, the desire for constant busy-ness is a dangerous path. Ultimately, I think we all want to crack the chicken-or-egg-first problem: does happiness follow success or does success follow happiness? Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, argues for the latter. He uses rigorous research to prove that happiness fuels our brains to become more creative, motivated, energetic and productive.

Achor's findings certainly ring true in my own life. When I take time for myself and think more about the now and less about what the now will get me in the future, I feel far more invigorated and effective at any task. Happiness and confidence should not derive from how productive we are, or how much responsibility we can hold. There is a fine line between being busy and frenzied, and keeping ourselves fulfilled requires a careful balance of work and leisure.

Even though humans are living longer, each day that we live seems to go by faster and faster. Gone are the days before internet, TV, skyscrapers, smog, Justin Beiber and iPhones. We cannot choose the era that we live in, but we can choose how to live. So next time I'm waiting at the t-stop, I think I'll just listen to the street performer on my right and stop to smell the cigarette and sweat scent in the air.