The Downside of No Downtime: America’s Culture of Busy
In 1928, economist John Maynard Keynes imagined a world in which, thanks to advances in technological innovation, future generations would be freed to embrace a less “busy” lifestyle - perhaps only working three days a week, and that by choice, not necessity.
“For the first time in his creation, man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem,” wrote Keynes in his 1931 essay Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren. “How to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy leisure, which science and compound interest have won.”
Between 1964 and 2013, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor State statistics, the average U.S. work week dropped by nearly 12 percent, from more than 38 hours to less than 34 hours. Another time-freeing work-force shift took place between 1999 and 2010, as, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Americans working from home rose by 41 percent.
Today, according to Global Workplace Analytics, more than 3.3 million Americans work from home - one important advantage of which is the flexibility to determine one’s own work schedule. With the addition of labor-saving, and therefore time-saving, devices abundant in most American homes, one would think that people would be at a loss for what to do with their spare time. Yet, according to numerous studies, and in defiance of Keynes’ predictions, many Americans feel that they are far busier now than they have ever been before.
“America is an achievement-oriented culture,” said Dr. Gina Manguno-Mire, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Tulane University Health Sciences Center. “Success is defined by accomplishment, and that mindset starts at a very early age. Today, we see both kids and adults who are so structured that they just don’t seem to know what to do with free time, so they fill it with activities.”
Complexity of Stress
One of the dangers of embracing America’s “culture of busy,” is that it leads to increased levels of stress, according to Dr. Manguno-Mire. However, she said, stress is itself a very complex concept.
“Stress can be positive, or negative,” she explained. “However, the body doesn’t know the difference between “good stress, and “bad stress.” To the body, stress is stress and it reacts with the same autonomic physical reaction – the fight or flight response.”
The fight or flight response floods the body with stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, causing a series of dramatic physiological changes to take place. As blood rate, blood-sugar levels, and blood pressure increase, non-immediately essential activities, like digestion and the immune system are repressed.
“And that can be good for the short term,” said Dr. Manguno-Mire. “The fight or flight response helps you to address perceived threats, and cope with the demands of life. However, during long term chronic stress – as when we are always busy - the body becomes over-stressed, creating health problems. Heart disease, headaches, stomach problems: all these things can result from chronic stress. As can mental problems like anxiety, depression, irritability, insomnia and reduced concentration. However, people are all unique; we all have different responses to life’s challenges. Something that might be stressful to one person, another might find exciting.”
For Katie Smith, the 34-year-old Director of Public Relations for the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans, being busy is a way of life that she finds both exciting and fulfilling.
“I like to think I perform better under stress,” laughed Smith. “And I am extremely fortunate to love my job. But I think in today’s work market, many people are very busy because they have to kind of “piecemeal” income together. That kind of busy – and lack of job security - is incredibly stressful, and far more stressful than being really busy doing something that you enjoy. And when you are overstretched, how you handle that stress depends on what you have been taught. I can’t overstate how important it is to make time for yourself, even when you are at your busiest.”
Yet, according to journalist Tim Kreider, another explaining America’s “culture of busy” may be rooted more in the perception than in hard reality.
Busyness at the Cost of Happiness
“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness,” wrote Kreider in his 2012 article for The New York Times, The Busy Trap. According to Kreider, some people actively create their hectic life-style because they dread “what they might have to face in its absence.”
During her 2010 televised TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) talk, Research Professor at the University of Houston Brené Brown also discussed the long-reaching mental and physical health repercussions of embracing a “culture of busy” to mask other larger issues, in particular embracing “busyness” at the cost of “happiness.”
“The problem is that you cannot selectively numb emotion,” said Brown. “We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated cohort in U.S. history. Here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s disappointment. You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing other affects…we (also) numb joy, we numb gratitude, and we numb happiness. And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning. It becomes this dangerous cycle.”
“Being constantly busy is one of the ways that people can practice avoidance,” agreed Dr. Manguno-Mire. “Like an addiction, you are over-dependent on an activity, and you engage in that activity to the detriment of other things. Why you are addicted depends on a lot of factors, including cultural influences, or even religious influences.”
That this particular addiction can wreak havoc on both physical and mental health is something that 49-year-old local business woman Pauline Patterson knows very well.
Patterson is a well-known public figure in New Orleans. As well as being the busy co-owner of Finn McCool’s Irish Pub and Trèo, over the years she has also served on numerous public boards, including the Mid City Neighborhood Association (MCNO.)
“As a child, I was taught that idle hands are the Devil’s workshop,” said Patterson. “I started working when I was 11 years old, and I never really stopped. I am also a “people pleaser,” so it is very hard for me to say no. There is a rush to being so busy, and I had stopped asking why I was working so hard. I committed to everything but my own health. I had become a “human doing,” not a “human being.” I filled every minute of the day with something to do. My life was completely unbalanced, but rather than stop and figure that out, I just added more work, and tipped the scale even more.”
According to Dr. Carl Lavie Jr., M.D., Professor of Medicine, Medical Director, and Staff Cardiologist at the John Ochsner Heart and Vascular Institute in New Orleans, while stress is an unavoidable part of life, there are ways to balance the scale of some of its detrimental effects.
“Acute stress, including psychological stress can lead to heart attacks, and strokes,” said Dr. Lavie. “And chronic stress can have the same effects, to a less severe degree. However research shows that even small improvements in exercise training and cardio-respiratory fitness can help mitigate these effects.”
For Pauline Patterson, therapy was key that helped her rethink her priorities, and take steps to reclaim her life. These steps included selling her home and downsizing; starting an exercise regime; and establishing a simplified and less overwhelmingly busy lifestyle.
“I wasn’t functioning well,” said Patterson. “I wasn’t eating well. I didn’t sleep well. I hired people to take the stress off me at Finns and Trèo, but my work load still grew exponentially because I used that freed time to take on other projects, creating more work for myself. I had to take a step back, and that first step was learning to say no.”
It is important to remember that busier does not necessarily mean happier, summed up Dr. Manguno-Mire, who also advises taking a “gut check,” especially when feeling overwhelmed.
“Be present and mindful in your own life,” said Manguno-Mire. “Ask yourself, what am I doing? What meaning do I derive from this? Create support systems, and carve out unstructured time every day, even if it is just half an hour. Set boundaries with technology. All these things help counteract the effects of stress. And ask yourself this - who really needs to be busy and available 24/7?”