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Why psychologists say you should ban 'busy' from your vocabulary

POSTED: March 24, 2015 2:39 a.m.
Kelsey Dallas/

Choosing words like "lively" or "eventful" to describe hectic schedules can reduce stress, according to researchers.

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In late February, Scott Dannemiller, a writer and worship leader in the Presbyterian Church, captured the attention of hundreds of thousands of people with a simple four-word headline: "Busy is a Sickness."

He described rushing around from appointment to appointment and regularly scolding his young children for failing to keep up, noting that his busyness mindset was causing him to miss all of life's best moments.

"Most of the time, I manufacture urgency in hopes that it will create urgency in others. Instead, it only creates anxiety, resentment and spite. Which is absolutely counter-productive," he wrote in the blog for The Huffington Post. "And even in the cases where urgency is real, it's often due to a packed schedule I created."

The only solution to this self-inflicted sickness was to ban "busy" from his vocabulary, Dannemiller said. He started describing his life as "full" instead.

His story was more than just relatable ("Busy is a Sickness" was shared more than 26,000 times on Facebook). It also illustrated a phenomenon psychologists have increasingly discussed in recent years: Word choice impacts emotional health.

In a piece on busyness, the Washington Post's Megan Wycklendt offered an overview of research that sheds light on why "busy" should be avoided.

"It may not be our 'to do list' that is the source of our unhappiness," she wrote. "Instead, our choice of words can have a negative effect on our experience."

Wycklendt highlighted a study on the psychological aspects of language use published in 2003 by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin. The research explained that the way people describe events has a powerful impact on their experience of them, citing earlier studies on the benefits of writing about past traumas in order to reconceptualize them.

"The words people use in their daily lives can reveal important aspects of their social and psychological worlds," the researchers wrote.

Like Dannemiller, Wycklendt said the best strategy to reduce stress during a busy day or week is to think of tasks in new ways.

"When I complain about how busy I am, it is as if someone put all these things on my plate without my approval. When in fact, I made my life the way it is," she wrote. "The question is: Is it all worth it? If it is, be grateful and proud of everything you do. If it's not, make a change."

She challenged readers to reframe their busy lives as "active, eventful, involved or lively," sharing her goal to do the same.

Turning to new vocabulary words to reduce stress might actually be better than cutting down on activities, because research has shown people thrive with full lives.

"People who are busy are happier than people who are idle," concluded the researchers behind a 2010 study on the need for "justifiable busyness." In fact, even people forced to be busy were shown to get an emotional boost.
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