Study Reveals Americans Associate “Busyness” with Status

As someone who has recently transitioned from a career as a full-time staff member in academic advising to a freelance writer and part-time adjunct, I think quite a bit about the concept of work – namely, my own complex feelings about suddenly being able to decide when – and how much – I work. It’s been incredibly liberating to set my own schedule, and yet I still find myself feeling guilty if I don’t clock the standard eight-hour-days, five or more days a week, chastising myself for surfing the Internet when I should be writing. Because even though I used to surf the Internet at my previous job (and don’t we all), I was “at the office,” and therefore “working.” I was “busy.” So now when I’m at home, watching a film for an article I’m writing or doing some reading to prepare for a class, I have to remind myself that this is work, not leisure. This counts. But what’s wrong with leisure, as long as you’re working enough to put food on the table?

One of my favorite essays is Bertrand Russell’s 1935 work “In Praise of Idleness,” which argues that idleness, or leisure, is absolutely necessary in society, for the poor as well as the rich. This is a sentiment that our growth- and production-driven capitalist society often lets fall by the wayside. If you’re not being “productive,” it is often implied that you are wasting your time. Likewise, it is implied that those who are struggling to make ends meet or to climb the ladder should be working as hard and as much as they possibly can, with little regard for happiness or balance.

This brings me to a recent study by the Harvard Business Review regarding the way the concept of “busyness” has become our cultural shorthand for status. The study’s authors, Silvia Bellezza, Neeru Paharia and Anat Keinan note that while indulging in leisure time was once considered a status symbol, “busyness” has usurped it.

In today’s America, complaining about being busy and working all the time is so commonplace most of us do it without thinking. If someone asks “How are you?” we no longer say “Fine” or “I’m well, thank you.” We often simply reply “Busy!”

The team of researchers decided to conduct a study gauging people’s attitudes toward “busyness” vs. leisure time:

In general, we found that the busy person is perceived as high status, and interestingly, these status attributions are heavily influenced by our own beliefs about social mobility. In other words, the more we believe that one has the opportunity for success based on hard work, the more we tend to think that people who skip leisure and work all the time are of higher standing.

Bellezza, Paharia and Keinan also looked at additional factors, including marketing and cultural variation. Click here to read the full study. And if you feel yourself getting stressed out by these pervasive attitudes, try to remember Russell’s words: “Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle.”

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