I recently came across an news article sharing research that people who are busy are perceived as having higher social status. This was not particularly surprising and yet, as someone who studies leisure, I found this quite disappointing.
In searching out the research, I found the news article to be a bit deceptive. In one of the studies supporting the research, participants were given a couple of conditions. “In one condition [it] read, ‘Jeff works long hours and his calendar is always full.’ In contrast, participants in the other condition [it] read, ‘Jeff does not work and has a leisurely lifestyle'” (Bellezza, Paharia, & Keinan, 2016b, p. 3). After reading these two scenarios, participants rated Jeff’s social status. Working long hours got the higher social status. I found the comparison used a bit problematic. I think there may be more to our perceptions of the difference between working long hours and not working at all. Is Jeff rich, retired, or unemployed? Without knowing why Jeff is leading a leisurely lifestyle, it is difficult to know how study participants decided to give the busy Jeff higher social status.
In another study supporting the authors’ research (Bellezza, Paharia, & Keinan, 2016b), individuals wearing a Bluetooth device were seen as having higher status than individuals wearing headphones (which could represent someone listening to music). In the third study, the authors had participants read two sets of Facebook posts. In on set, the statuses included statements such as “Oh, I have been working non-stop all week!” and “Quick 10 minute lunch”. In the other set of Facebook posts, the statements were “I haven’t worked much this week, had lots of free time” and “Enjoying a long lunch break.” The individual working non-stop and took a quick lunch was assigned a higher status than the other individual.
What contributes to busy being more highly valued?
One of the reasons that busyness may be linked to status is because of the development of “knowledge-intensive economies” (Bellezza, Paharia, & Keinan, 2016a) in which human capital characteristics such as competence and ambition are highly valued and in high demand. In this kind of economy, telling others that we are busy – that we are working long hours with little leisure time – helps create a perception that our human capital characteristics are in high demand and that we are a scare resource. Scarcity contributes to perceived value. So, apparently you increase your economic value, and therefore your status, when you are able to cram more work into a day than someone else (Racco, 2017; Wasik, 2013) or are willing to sacrifice leisure or sleep for work.
It is interesting to me that being busy is not seen as someone having taken on too many tasks/roles or as a lack of efficiency in completing tasks/carrying out roles. To me, “busy” could just as easily signal a miscalculation of one’s capacity or be a sign that someone has not organized his/her workload in a way that is effective. But, it seems that we may not think critically about what might be behind someone’s “busyness”. There also seems to be a clear undervaluing of leisure and its important role in our life.
Outcomes of busyness
Busyness may be a way to climb the social ladder, but it also something most of us choose. It is a self-inflicted disease that contributes to anxiety, heartburn, fatigue, weight gain, and insomnia (Kovan, 2013; Richards, 2015). Another consequence of busyness disease (BD) is not having time for more authentic, vulnerable relationships (Richards, 2015) which, arguably, are more worthwhile and important than working more hours (assuming enough income is earned through fewer hours to meet needs).
Certainly, there are times when we are necessarily busy. Life is just like that sometimes. However, as Kovan (2013) points out, sometimes people cause themselves more harm than good by voluntarily taking on extra, unnecessary activities that make their lives more busy. She argues that, for some, these choices are made to boost the ego and to avoid feelings of emptiness.
One of the most significant outcomes of being busy, from my perspective, is that we loose out on leisure. We miss opportunities to engage in things we are interested in, to explore new interests, to meet new people who share our passions, and to experience joy and greater life satisfaction.
What is needed to resist busy?
As I read these articles, I reflected on what is required for someone to resist aspiring to a busy and overworked lifestyle and viewing it as a status symbol.
Valuing of leisure. Leisure needs to be valued. Because I’m fairly leisure literate, I understand the value that leisure has in my life and I suspect others who prioritize leisure hold similar values. I am aware of how I benefit from the leisure activities I enjoy and I appreciate potential benefits of activities that I could try or enjoy. That doesn’t mean that people who value leisure are not busy or don’t experience periods when they are “crazy busy,” but when leisure is valued, you are more likely to make choices that support you being able to engage in it.
Taking responsibility for how time is spent. At times when I have had the opportunity to work with people who were looking to make changes to their individual or family leisure, I have found that people resist the idea that they are responsible for their leisure. Rather than claiming responsibility for choosing a demanding career, choosing to put children in multiple activities that place incredible demands on time, or choosing to bake 500 cookies at Christmas-time for a cookie exchange, people often blame others. “You have to have your kids in everything these days.” Actually, you do not. “I have to work long hours if I want to get promoted.” Maybe, but acknowledge that you want to get promoted and what that decision means for your leisure time. It is difficult to resist “busy” or to say “no” to things that will make you unnecessarily busy if you cannot acknowledge that you have control over what you do with your time.
Becoming clear on priorities. It is important to be clear on your priorities and the order in which they come. If your partner, family, or friends are important, how is time spent with them? Is the time and quality of that time spent on your top priorities disproportionate to the extra time spent on things that are lower priorities (e.g., work)? Priorities change and it is important to recognize when and how they change.
Avoid the ‘busy’ language. If you are interested in helping resist “busy” becoming something people aspire to or are impressed by, I encourage you not to spread it. I have recently noticed that when students email me for help or stop by my office, they often start with, “I know you are busy…”. As I’ve noticed this pattern, I’ve reflected on what I’ve said or done to make my students feel that their request or presence might be viewed as a disruption. Or, is it just an atmosphere we create at my university (or in society) where everyone is “busy”? I try to reassure students that they are not a bother and that I have time for them. I also try to catch myself when I hear myself say that “I’m busy,” and try to follow it with, “It’s my own fault.” I often underestimate how much work things will be (my processes are sometimes slow). I try to learn from my experiences, but I often find this challenging as I get presented with new opportunities and have no idea what will truly be involved or how long the tasks will take me. And sometimes, I just make bad choices about my workload and things are temporarily quite frantic – a consequence of my own doing. Avoiding “busy” is a work in progress, but I have consistently worked at not being impressed by either my own busyness or the busyness of others.
If “busy” is indeed something that impresses people and is assigned higher social status by others in society, our leisure and indeed our happiness and life satisfaction is threatened. Perhaps there is a need to emphasize the research that demonstrates how leisure benefits human capital (e.g., people are less stressed, more productive, and happier) and that being “busy” is not really something to which we should be aspiring.
Bellezza, S., Paharia, N., & Keinan, A. (2016a). Conspicuous consumption of time: When busyness and lack of leisure time become a status symbol. Journal of Consumer Research,
Bellezza, S., Paharia, N., & Keinan, A. (2016b). Why Americans are so impressed by busyness. Harvard Business Review.
Koven, S. (2013). Busy is the new sick. Retrieved from http://archive.boston.com/lifestyle/health/blog/inpractice/2013/07/busy_is_the_new_sick.html
Racco, M. (2017, March 30). “The cult of busyness: How being busy became a status symbol,” Global News.
Wasik, John F. (2013, February 12), “The Biggest Financial Asset in Your Portfolio Is You,” New York Times, F7.