We all know the famous saying that “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”* Nowadays, however, it seems that this phenomenon has taken on a new shape: life is what happens to us while we are busy – busy checking our e-mail, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, running for the fitness, finishing that last report for work, finding the latest best buy… The meager 24 hours in a day seem never enough to fit all the tasks we want to complete. And while we are busy completing to-do lists and checklists, we forget what is most important in life: to enjoy every moment, to spend quality time with your loved ones, to notice the beauty of the autumn leaves or simply contemplate on your own in silence.
Busyness Equals Worthiness
It all comes from our materialistic society, where “time is money” so if we are not utilising our time, we are wasting it. We are convinced that the more we do, the more worth we have. According to various social studies we are faced with a new social disease. How many times have you heard your friends answer to your question of how they are doing “I am very busy, I am doing a thousand things and don’t have time for anything”? This is preventing us from finding our true inner self and is not letting us be present. This behavior is slowly transferring to our children as they copy everything we do. But what is worse, even if we are physically with our children, emotionally we are absent, which leaves them feeling lonely and less important to us than our precious phones.
It seems that slowly we have started to perceive that being busy means being important and being worthy and vice versa: if we are not busy we are not important and we don’t matter. Especially in our Western society we are defined by what we do, by our careers and by what we produce. It’s the first question that people ask you when they meet you and the first information you discuss at social gatherings. When I tell people that I am a mom that stays at home and raises its little kid, they look at me with pity and stop talking to me about important subjects. I feel obliged to start explaining myself: that I am actually working, that I have two companies of my own, that I have a Masters degree from LSE, that while working and raising my child I also studied and got a new diploma… Basically I feel obliged to explain that I am busy and therefore I am as worthy as them. Immediately their attitude changes.
Dr. Susan Koven practices internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. In a 2013 Boston Globe column, she wrote: “In the past few years, I’ve observed an epidemic of sorts: patient after patient suffering from the same condition. The symptoms of this condition include fatigue, irritability, insomnia, anxiety, headaches, heartburn, bowel disturbances, back pain, and weight gain. There are no blood tests or X-rays diagnostic of this condition, and yet it’s easy to recognize. The condition is excessive busyness.”
If this seems to you as just an opinion of a single person, consider a study published in the journal Science. In one experiment, participants were left alone in a room for up to 15 minutes. When asked whether they liked the alone time, over half reported disliking it. In subsequent studies, participants were given an electric shock, and then asked if they would pay money to avoid being shocked again. Not surprisingly, most said they would trade money to avoid pain. However, when these same people were left alone in a room for 15 minutes, nearly half chose to self-administer an electric shock rather than sit alone with their thoughts. Yes, you read that right. Voluntarily. Shocking, isn’t it?
We’ve heard for years that excessive stress causes health problems. But notice that Dr. Koven didn’t say stress: she said busyness. This new busyness we control is turning into the main stress factor in our everyday lives. It’s an epidemic in the form of a self-created stress. The inability to rest well (to fully switch off your brain from all worries) and to do it regularly prevents the brain from recharging and may eventually lead to overheating. This may lead to the popular nowadays burnout phenomenon. It is no coincidence that in the past it was a must for workers to rest two weeks during the summer and at least a week during the winter.
The Addiction of Crazy-Busy
There are many resources and experts who remind us that busyness can be an actual addiction, just like drugs or alcohol, when it’s used as an unhealthy coping mechanism to deal with stressors or with unpleasant situations in our lives. In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown writes about numbing behaviors that we use as armor against vulnerability. And lest you think numbing doesn’t apply to you, because you’re not hooked on cocaine or alcohol, she clarifies by saying, “One of the most universal numbing strategies is what I call crazy-busy. I often say that when they start having 12-step meetings for busy-aholics, they’ll need to rent out football stadiums. We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us.”
But how do you know if you have the disease of being busy? After all working, raising children and perfecting yourself are all good things. We are not here to say that you should just quit your job and start lying in your bed refusing all responsibilities. There is a very simple way to see if you are suffering from this new phenomenon: just answer the following questions. What happens when you have absolutely nothing to do? Do you feel anxious? Stressed? Worried that you’ll be unproductive or waste time doing nothing? Does the thought of having no plan make your stomach turn a little? Are you even able to go 10 minutes without checking your phone? Does free time make you uncomfortable and you don’t know what to do with it?
Where Are We Going?
Starting in the 1950s, the new era of technological innovations began with products that promised to make our daily lives easier and simpler. Even so, today we continue to have the same amount of time or even less available than in past decades. For some of us, “the privileged ones”, the lines between our work and personal lives disappear. We always have a smartphone or a tablet, never disconnecting and letting ourselves be present. The last novel of Dan Brown “Origin” also touches on that subject as one of the main revelations of the main character is that in roughly fifty years humanity and technology will merge into one by producing a new species. Right now this seems like science-fiction but just look around and even at yourself and you will see to what extends our lives have started to depend on machines. Will you be able to live just one day without your phone, without a TV or another device that connects you to the rest of the world?