Busyness - Badge of Honor or Cultural Disease? | Chris Kresser
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Busyness: Badge of Honor or Cultural Disease?

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Status symbols are a part of every culture. For a long time, conspicuous consumption and expensive brands have been the dominant status symbols in America. Now “busyness” is overtaking them. But is being busy a good thing?

Many suffer from the disease of being busy.
Busyness is sometimes necessary when trying to accomplish important goals. Until we lose sight of what's important in life. istock.com/Geber86

Several months ago I came across an article in the LA Times called “How ‘busyness’ became a bona fide status symbol.” It describes a study in the Journal of Consumer Research that found that busyness—specifically, being overworked and lacking leisure time—has replaced conspicuous consumption as the primary sign of status in our culture.

I’m sure you’ve experienced this yourself. Consider this all-too-familiar scenario when two friends run into each other:

“Hey, great to see you. How are you?”

“Ugh, so busy. Things are just nuts right now.”

“I totally get it—it’s the same for me. I’m crazy busy.”

The study suggests that “busyness” is now the way that people signal their importance. According to Silvia Belleza, a co-author of the paper, busyness is:

a more nuanced way to display [importance] that doesn’t go through conspicuous consumption. It’s implicitly telling you that ‘I am very important, and my human capital is sought after, which is why I’m so busy.’

The researchers also found that participants considered people who work longer hours and have less time for leisure as “higher status.”

It makes me sad that being slavishly devoted to work at the expense of all else is now a sign of status. Seems to me it should be the opposite.

In fact, I would argue that our excessive busyness is not a badge of honor, but a cultural disease. It’s a sign of just how disconnected we’ve become from what’s important in life.

The people I admire most are those who have managed to achieve success and contribute to the world without sacrificing their own health and well-being or their relationships with family and friends. I’m inspired by people who have diverse interests and hobbies and the time to pursue them—not by people who spend 80 hours a week in the office and have no life outside of work.

What’s more important: leisure time or social status?

I’m not sure how we’ve come to this point; it certainly wasn’t always this way. At one time the “Renaissance Man” was the ideal: a versatile and well-rounded person with expertise and interest in many different areas.

Whatever the reason for this change, it’s not a positive one. I see the health effects of it every day in my clinic. Humans aren’t built for this kind of busyness. Most studies of contemporary hunter–gatherers suggest that they work about four to five hours a day. But even then, their work—hunting, gathering, building shelter—required skill and intelligence, was carried out in a social context, and wasn’t compulsive.

There was always ample time for leisure activity, including games, ceremonies, music, singing, dancing, traveling to other bands to visit friends and relatives, and even time for lying around and relaxing. In many ways, the life of the typical hunter–gatherer looks a lot like the modern life of someone on vacation.

We may not be able to return to a life exactly like this, but it’s certainly a lot closer to what I aspire to than being so busy I hardly have time to take a shower (which I once heard from a friend I bumped into).

What about you? What do you think of busyness as a status symbol? Are you more impressed by busy people, or by people who’ve managed to maintain sanity in this crazy world? Let us know in the comments section.

  1. My father was a full-blooded first-generation Italian American. When he found out I was going to marry someone who was going to become a physician he said to me ,”why don’t you marry some nice blue-collar guy? Who will have time for you and your family?”
    We used to spend the weekend driving to a farm stand outside of San Francisco purchasing beautiful produce directly from the farmer. This was in the 1970s. The rest of the day we would prepare food sit and enjoy a meal together that seems to last hours as we all lingered at the table enjoying each other’s company …
    My dad was no sloth. He owned three barbershops when I was born. He was a self-made businessman.
    His culture taught him what was important . Food ,family and pleasure, always came first.
    My husband and I have one child left at home. I homeschool her. A decision I made against busyness. Against the status quo of today’s society. We don’t believe we should send our child away to be raised by others. We enjoy meals together three times a day! My “busy” cardiologist husband makes it home at noon as much as he can to have lunch with us. We do our best not to over schedule our child or ourselves .
    I am grateful to my father for his lessons on slow food , slowing down and savoring life.

  2. I’m busy.
    I like it.
    I try to avoid using the word though because it has become some kind of hot-key of the ego.
    -That is people use it to assert, indirectly, that they are
    productive achievers.
    -They also use it to hide themselves behind because they
    have a fear of a real conversation.
    -And of course they use it to cut a conversation short because they don’t like you much (should I say “In my experience’?).

    When the ego is involved (which is always I think) analysis becomes really tricky, possibly counterproductive because it wastes time.

    Which is what I am doing now by making a comment on this article. Gotta get moving sorry.

  3. H.L. Mencken: “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

    The US is a puritanical country. “Hard work” as religion. Wake up Americans. Most everyone on this earth has to “work hard” to make a living. If you’re “working hard” and are also miserable you are a virtuous American. The whole country is a petri dish of mentally unbalanced, media-driven and brainwashed individuals.

    “But what, then, is the character that actually marks the American—that is, in chief? If he is not the exalted monopolist of liberty that he thinks he is nor the noble altruist and idealist he slaps upon the chest when he is full of rhetoric, nor the degraded dollar-chaser of European legend, then what is he? We offer an answer in all humility, for the problem is complex and there is but little illumination of it in the literature; nevertheless, we offer it in the firm conviction, born of twenty years’ incessant meditation, that it is substantially correct. It is, in brief, this: that the thing which sets off the American from all other men, and gives a peculiar colour not only to the pattern of his daily life but also to the play of his inner ideas, is what, for want of a more exact term, may be called social aspiration. That is to say, his dominant passion is a passion to lift himself by at least a step or two in the society that he is a part of—a passion to improve his position, to break down some shadowy barrier of caste, to achieve the countenance of what, for all his talk of equality, he recognizes and accepts as his betters. The American is a pusher. His eyes are ever fixed upon some round of the ladder that is just beyond his reach, and all his secret ambitions, all his extraordinary energies, group themselves about the yearning to grasp it. Here we have an explanation of the curious restlessness that educated foreigners, as opposed to mere immigrants, always make a note of in the country; it is half aspiration and half impatience, with overtones of dread and timorousness. The American is violently eager to get on, and thoroughly convinced that his merits entitle him to try and to succeed, but by the same token he is sickeningly fearful of slipping back, and out of the second fact, as we shall see, spring some of his most characteristic traits. He is a man vexed, at one and the same time, by delusions of grandeur and an inferiority complex; he is both egotistical and subservient, assertive and politic, blatant and shy. Most of the errors about him are made by seeing one side of him and being blind to the other. Such a thing as a secure position is practically unknown among us.”

  4. I used to think it was my duty as a citizen to be informed on every current event and so I would keep NPR running in the background. I had no idea how this was pulling my attention away from mindfulness. Once I shifted this, I felt the space to breath and more fully concentrate on the task at hand and I could actually feel my body relax. Plus, I didn’t have this pit in my stomach, upset about the latest disaster I could do little to help. However, I had a lot of guilt about this so I had to make a deal with myself to not just run away from civic engagement but stay active. I actually had more energy to apply myself to those issues I felt more passionate about and had more of an ability to change. I do tune in and get a lot from the two half-hour segments I listen to but I try now to be deliberate about my decision to turn on the radio (am I trying to get info., am I avoiding something, lonely, understimulated, etc.) I’ve applied this same deliberate approach with many of my habits like watching TV, calling a friend, eating without thinking and now have the time to take care of myself better and get enough sleep. I’m still busy but feeling full from it rather than depleted.

  5. Two major contributing factors to this obsession with busyness are technology and strays from the old 9-5 M-F work schedule, with less and less separation between work and home life.

    Also, in the professional services industry (law, public accounting, business consulting) billable hours are absolutely a badge of honor and a major factor in success. You’re considered a superstar if you’re a good multi-tasker.

    Technology is the biggest culprit. If a conversation lulls everyone resort to their e-devices and starts checking email — this is a sign of social laziness and rudeness and also a way of showing other people that you’re very sought after by others, as mentioned by Chris.

    I know people who are unable to just sit down, relax and just “be” — and I mean ever — or even take a nice relaxing walk; everything in their life has to be at a fever-pitched pace at all times. It’s really hard to be around people like that. And I’m not talking about hard work — our country was built on hard work, and it’s important to have purpose and drive for both our own happiness and the betterment of our society. But in recent decades we seem to have lost the balance.

    • Balance is a fiction in the real world.
      It is just a talking point idea, “I need a better work/life balance.”
      Best to give it up. Relax about the fact that things are wobbly.
      Life is often painful. Train yourself (which is done slowly) to embrace it.
      Or how about this – You can still be balanced while going to the very extremes in two or more directions.

  6. I get really irritated with people who say they are always busy. I avoid them. I truly admire people who do things in groups e.g. Families and make everything into a delightful social event without watching the clock.

    • “New scientific ideas never spring from a communal body, however organized, but rather from the head of an individually inspired researcher who struggles with his problems in solitary thought.” – Max Planck

  7. This is probably the most important article many of us will read about health this year. Because it’s an ignored phenomenon so far. But I think it’s critical to have a spotlight on this subject, now that I’ve read this.

    The health bloggers are covering all the other aspects of health with fine toothed combs, but this needs attention. This busyness is a frequent contributor to stress. A mind and body can’t concentrate on all the busyness that many people take on and still remain healthy. Other studies have shown how debilitating stress is. One just needs some proof that busyness, especially as a chronic situation, is a damaging stressor. This article starts the ball rolling for me to check further into this field of health.

    One proof I have already though is to recall the daily routines of those people in the Blue Zones. The only one that comes close to a busy modern lifestyle is Loma Linda and that place is somewhat relaxed compared to typical Southern California lifestyle. The religion and research hospital atmosphere and slight isolation from other communities brings a breath of fresh air there. It may all come down to a community shared faith which is rare in the USA, but it’s definitely a slightly more dreamy, protected lifestyle.

    The rest of the Blue Zones are very un-busy communities as I recall.

    • “The health bloggers are covering all the other aspects of health with fine toothed combs, but this needs attention.”
      Agreed!
      And the health bloggers, as a class, may be part of the problem, since many of them (Chris excepted, of course) are 1) Type-A personalities, and 2) their livelihoods depend on cranking out an endless stream of stuff to get the rest of us all spun up and stressed, so we keep coming back for the latest health news and/or products.

      • Agreed. I just read a book about training by a Ben guy, forgot the name. You can not only see the type A popping out, but the guy is truly a one trick pony, focused entirely on training and evolutionary health and so outsources everything else, from cooking to cutting the lawn. Even ignoring current events and all else to just focus on one field. Successfully, yes, but fun, I am not so sure.

  8. Thats funny. I use the busy line as a means to avoid things, events and people, or excuse my delayed responses. Couldnt care what my consumption looks like to others. Or what my importance quotient looks like. Im just busy with my stuff…some important, some silly.

    Plus, Ive never been a “Keep up with the others” guy. As what the others are doing always looks dumb and a waste of time, money and energy. If youre busy, youre busy, I dont hyper value you for it. And if I know what it is keeping you busy, and deem it silly…whatever. Thats your call.

    What I take away from this analysis, is how vacuous our culture has become. Seeking material goods to show importance, gobbling up the clock, and using energy expenditures as a metric of importance.

    Imagine if Americans had to walk a few miles everyday to get semi-potable water for the day. How much extra value, virtue and pats on the backs would we be assigning ourselves?

    We’re such an empty people.

  9. I think a number of factors come together here. But two of them are these fallacies which are unspoken but have become dominant:
    “Activity = achievement”
    “‘Modernisation’ (i.e. change for its own sake) = improvement”

    The latter of these fallacies imposes a heavy burden of needless work on people. For instance the pressure to change from Windows XP to ever-newer and ever-more-inferior “improved” versions of Windows.

    Oh, and now of course you “have to have” a smartphone instead (and then replace with an “improved” one), and learn to use it, along with familiarity with Facebook and Twitter and Tinder and then the next thing, just to stand still in society.

    The sick corporate capitalism system makes money from constantly changing things. At my residential block, and in the surrounding environment there are constant pointless “improvements” which make profits for contractors but just a load of time-consuming bother for the locals trying to sort out the mess and stop more.

    The open invitation by Merkel and other politicians of “refugees welcome [though not in our own streets]” (with refugees in practice really meaning anyone who doesn’t look European) has generated a lot of new bother for everyone except herself. Plus of course the terrorism.

    Corruption and social disruption caused by fatcats oppressing less wealthy people has imposed heavy burdens on them. Fatcats force up expenses for poorer people who are then obliged to compete to survive, with having to take three jobs, or wives having to seek employment which was rarely the case 30 years ago.

    Meanwhile the competitive struggle imposes heavy burdens. I have just finished writing a great book, but now I have to spend a huge amount of time struggling to be seen above the crowd of millions of others’ useless rubbish books, many of whom have been told that the road to riches is to “write more books”, even if they didn’t really have anything to say in their first one anyway. There are even hundreds of books and blogs telling them that the great key to success is “write even more books”.

    Meanwhile, there is also a lot more we are able to do now. We can spend a whole day chatting with people at the far side of the world. Many thousands of new publications such as “scientific” “peer-reviewed” studies are available to read. And if you don’t read them you are of course an ignorant fool! The stupid academic promotion system drives yet more of that drivel to being submitted to journals and published, and to hell with the burden on readers.

    I have never been so busy in my life. But I have also never been learning so much in my life.

    Another factor is the amount of fake news and fake expertise, which imposes on thinking people a considerable burden of picking through the deceits and counter-deceits. Some of this problem can be seen in the free chapters of my book, “Experts Catastrophe” at http://www.pseudoexpertise.com Well worth spending a little time to check out.

    • Thank you Robin! A most insightful comment! As you point out, much of the busyness is a cultural value; however, the economics and rising cost of living has been driving us to work more to attempt to maintain our income. As Chris Kresser and other bloggers have pointed out, the busyness often results in health degradation. People who push themselves all the time frequently get stuck in an anxious mode which leads to adrenal fatigue and poor sleep. We must relax to activate the parasympathetic system to heal, as detailed in http://www.diffen.com/difference/Parasympathetic_nervous_system_vs_Sympathetic_nervous_system.

  10. I have been extremely energetic all my life. I never knew how to slow down. I worked 100 hrs a week and enjoyed it. I never liked working with people who moved slowly of reacted slowly. Sometimes I wish I knew how to “chill out”!! I’m retired now (for 10 years) and have only recently started to slow down. I don’t understand how some people can move so slowly and react so slowly to everything.
    My grandson is really laid back and relaxed all the time. I want him to be more energetic but I know that it’s not his personality to be that way. I have slowly learned (over time) that everyone is different.

    Treblig

  11. I’m an academic, and since the modern English word ‘study’ comes from the Latin word ‘studiosus,’ meaning ‘busy,’ it is more or less the essence of my identity to be busy. Generally, though, I think the explanation for everyone being busy is capitalism, which has to rationalize resources to maximize profits, so the more productive units, i.e., people are busy, the more production and profit capitalism gets out of each producer.

  12. I don’t believe it… i would give anything to be less busy… but if you pay taxes, your bills, have responsibilities, a yard, a house, an apartment, interests, hobbies, pleasures, friends, it’s almost impossible to not be busy. Our Fed, State, City, County tax & business requirements are onerous. And then if you actually want to stay on top of what’s happening in the world, your local politics, community, there’s just too much. Just getting anywhere.. from Oakland to Berkeley often takes 40 minutes. This is not a status symbol. It’s the craziness of over population, stresses everywhere, environmental, governmental, social, etc… It’s modern life… Staying on top of eating healthy, keeping healthy & fit… Calling it status is a shallow projection, a very narrow minded one that certainly is not looking at life situations more fully, holistically…

    • I wholly agree with evj. Often dream of it being more like the old days….say the 30s-40s, even 50s. Don’t think we are better off socially.

    • Well said to evj’s comment….
      We have become an economic country based on profit. I watched the 2015 movie “Where to Invade Next” about visiting the lifestyle of other countries. It showed many European countries that have extended paid vacation days throughout the entire year —a much slower, relaxed pace. People were happier.

  13. I had never heard of this four- or five-hour block of work being what is traditional. I’m sure hunting/gathering is very different from what we do today, but I’ve always felt that I can offer a good solid four or five hours of quality concentration and effort on “work” for my job, and beyond that I’m kind of struggling. I always felt like a loser at work because of it, even though most people believe I have a solid work ethic and don’t know why I’m so hard on myself. So maybe I shouldn’t feel like that.