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).
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