America’s fixation with preoccupation
In the 1980s, Barbara Ehrenreich published an article in the New York Times observing the culture of “busyness” around her. The packed schedules. The strained rush from one task to another. The otherwise futile work, engaged solely to occupy idle hands. Ehrenreich essentially questions if these efforts to keep busy are made in vain, given how little they yield. She takes a skeptical stance, and urges her audience not to lose who they are for this ‘cult’ of being busy.
In the thirty years since, the United States has neglected her warnings. In fact, one could say the work culture and general environment of the country intensified to levels previously untapped in that time. This sort of vigorous lifestyle is a staple of modern culture, yet it was not always so.
As recent as the early 20th century, social mobility theorist Thorstein Veblen proclaimed that one’s leisure time is the most reliable measure of success, in the context that one who is wealthy can more than afford to relax instead of work. Yet as the century progressed, this ideal gave way to a more familiar image: hustling to achieve no matter what the physical or mental cost. This phenomenon is so prevalent in the human mind that a study by the University of Chicago concluded we actually fear inactivity and associate it with failure. The busy culture of today’s society results from the development of values and circumstance that drive us to perform in this manner, particularly with attention to prestige and status.
One of the most common themes of this prestige is that busy people are perceived as scarce and in demand. This is a finding shared by Psychology Today, which confers that by reputing themselves in this way, individuals display how valued they are by the market while giving credit to their ambition and competence. Whereas other cultures laud those who inherit their status, the U.S. revolves around the image of one who is self made, direct from the manifesto of the American Dream. Yet, this image only seems to benefit those who have elicited the most wealth from such a lifestyle.
Kathryn Dudley, an anthropology professor at Yale University with work focusing in part on cultural and historical values transformed by capitalism, recognizes the maximum limits of American perception of busyness. Faced with the collapse of structures for secure and stable employment, what’s left is a “small percentage of people with a great amount of privilege, who manifest these packed schedules.”
These types gain general admiration and favor, embodying the ‘cult of busyness’ described by Ehrenreich. However, with the specific fixation on this one percent population, Dudley stresses how we neglect to extend the same admiration to the majority of workers who go to extreme measures to earn a living.
Instead of recognizing the efforts put forth by the non-leisurely, hardworking lifestyle of working class individuals, their grueling day-to-day feats go largely unnoticed. “That precarious, frantic need to make ends meet can certainly be considered as ‘busy,’ but it’s not valued by the economy or the culture,” Dudley says.
Rather than yielding positive results, being exceptionally preoccupied does not necessarily translate to a favorable outcome. In terms of work productivity, taking on multiple tasks at once may not be indicative of true accomplishment, especially with consideration multitasking. A study published by University of Michigan found that switching from one task to another increases the time it takes to complete both tasks by 25 percent. According to Forbes Magazine, there is a sort of bottleneck in the brain preventing concentration on two subjects at once. Alice Walton, a health writer with a background in psychology and neuroscience, takes the time to recognize the key to a truly valuable schedule is a well rounded stability. “To foster a constant sense of distraction is unhealthy…. But keeping intellectually busy, having hobbies, being socially engaged — this kind of busyness is well illustrated to contribute to better cognition later in life.”
A reasonably productive lifestyle can prove beneficial for the mind without going to an extreme. A study conducted at the University of Texas concluded that out of all people who participated in testing, those who reported to have the busiest lifestyles scored the highest in tests of mental cognition, reasoning skills and long-term memory. This study, however, does not take into account the impact of stress on the mind and body. Thus the results may be best taken with the kind of mental awareness recommended by Elisha Goldstein, psychologist and founder of a course in mindful living. “Working hard is not a bad thing; we should just make sure to take more time to integrate more calm and more awareness of our bodies, so we don’t get caught in a stress response too often.” To combat this, New York Magazine urges the importance of juxtaposing more demanding tasks with leisurely ones, to allow the brain to expand in creativity. In achieving this sort of balance, one could reap all the mental benefits of being engaged without experiencing the stressful downfalls and inefficiencies resulting from being overworked.
Busyness has taken on a new and more urgent significance in modern times. People are attracted to keeping busy due to the prestige and cultural value surrounding this ideal in correspondence with the American Dream. However, given that only a few see the social benefits of following this lifestyle, and the instability busyness imposes on the average individual, being too busy combats true productivity. Instead, finding a balance between work and leisure serves as a much more mentally efficient and feasible way to engage in a demanding setting. By mastering this technique, workers or students can maximize what they have to offer without sacrificing a sense of self and serenity.
Catherine Colgan is a second year exploratory major that somehow found time in her busy schedule to write this piece. You can email them at email@example.com.