These days, “busy” is the new “fine.” While it’s a socially acceptable addiction, it’s damaging many things we care about. Work seems to be the main activity gobbling up time for other activities or rest. If you’re too busy with your job to maintain relationships, you start to experience the lethal effects of loneliness (a phenomenon borne out in scientific research). If you’re too busy with work to take care of yourself, you’ll obviously do damage to your health, but you’ll start underperforming at your job, too. This sacrifice — more and more work hours for fewer and fewer social, rest or recreational activities — is even scarier if you consider a Gallup study result that about 70 percent of Americans hate their jobs.
On some level, it’s not our fault. For one, we have a culture that elevates the most visible as the most valuable. Busyness is the leading substitute for significance. We wear sleep deprivation as a badge of honor, although its health effects are even more detrimental than smoking, and we accept and perpetuate busyness as an excuse to flake out, cancel plans and not really be there for the people in our lives. For another, almost half of the American population hasn’t shared in the economic growth of the last 40 years, so many of us are working longer and harder just to not lose ground.
This city is especially out of control: affordable housing in Seattle, according to housing authorities, is around $700 a month for a mediocre studio apartment; landlords can raise rent however much they want whenever they want.
Meanwhile, entry-level jobs require at least two years of experience and there are hundreds of applicants for each open position, more and more of which are part-time, contract or temporary so employers don’t have to provide benefits.
Ultimately, though, the reason “I don’t have time” is an excuse for everything from barely seeing your partner to not reading more is because we have bought very deeply into this capitalist idea that functioning is valuable and downtime is worthless.
It’s common to criticize capitalism for turning us all into nothing more than consumers, but someone has to
produce the stuff — goods, services, information — we’re consuming. If you’re not, you’re lazy and deserve to live on the streets. If you’re not filling all of your waking hours producing something for others to consume and consuming as much of what others are producing as possible, you are wasting your time.
Resting, the act of not exchanging your time for anything tangible, is now seen as lazy. This is how a culture can sustain the stigmatizing myth that “poor people are lazy” and dismiss facts like impossible housing prices and impossible job markets.
But the constant cultural pressure to always be “doing something” (as defined by those who own and control wealth) with one’s time is not only damaging to health, relationships and the planet, it’s buying into a political system that relies on people being either too disenfranchised or too exhausted to participate in changing it.
The stripping away of civil rights, the undoing of consumer and environmental protections, taking away the ability to participate in our own government all rely on a distracted, wearied public.
Most importantly, busyness is simply not fulfilling. In 2012, an Australian palliative care nurse wrote the popular “Five Regrets of the Dying.” As quoted in The Guardian, they all were against our culturally worshipped, frenetic busyness: I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me; I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings; I wish I hadn’t worked so hard; I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends; I wish that I had let myself be happier.
How much of our busyness is about other people’s expectations, real or perceived? How much is about work? How much is authentic? How much nourishes friendships? How much of it actually makes us happy? There is, of course, real work to do, but the key word is real. Real work is not busy work; it is meaningful, authentic effort we do with and for others.
Megan Wildhood is a writer, advocate in the mental health community and published poet and essayist living in Seattle.
Wait, there's more. Check out more articles from the full June 21 issue.
Real Change is reader supported. Just $5 a month provides work for more than 300 active vendors and keeps community journalism strong.