Research Confirms We Think Busy Is Better

Why are we still buying into this destructive idea?

There’s an unhealthy trend in the zeitgeist these days, where we view busyness as a status symbol (case in point: the ubiquitous busy-brag). New research, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, confirms that not only do we truly think busy people rank higher on the social ladder, but that the issue might be particularly American.

Researchers from Columbia and Harvard analyzed perceptions of “status in the eyes of others” with participants primarily from Italy and the U.S. While Italians consider living a leisurely life a symbol of status, Americans felt the opposite: Busyness at work was associated with high status. “The more we believe that people have the opportunity for social affirmation based on hard work,” the authors write in a press release about the study, “the more we tend to think that people who skip leisure and work all the time are of higher standing.”

Image courtesy of Unsplash

As the press release points out, this is a relatively new phenomenon: Just a generation ago, being able to afford a leisurely life signified success. The researchers explain how today, conspicuous consumption is evolving: It’s no longer about objects, but about time. We used to view goods that high status people could afford as precious or scarce, but now it’s more about the “preciousness and scarcity of individuals,” the study authors say. So when people seem busy, we may see them as “scarce and in demand.”

Another interesting finding: High status was also afforded to people who used delivery services (like getting groceries dropped off) by “virtue of its associations with timesaving and a busy lifestyle” — meaning if you don’t have time to go food shopping, you must be important.

There are a few reasons why these findings are cause for concern. For one, burnout from overwork doesn’t benefit anyone: It’s bad for the economy, workplace productivity and our overall wellbeing. We might also be using “I’m busy” as a synonym for “overwhelmed,” avoiding intimate conversations where we’d have to talk about how we’re really feeling, as this Wall Street Journal article suggests. Finally, glorying overwhelming busy people just perpetuates the problem, as we all look to these unhealthy lifestyles for inspiration.

Ultimately, associating leisure with laziness, and an overbooked schedule with success, is a destructive mentality. Taking time to unplug and rest (even in small ways, like disconnecting from work email after hours or taking a few minutes in the morning to meditate) benefits everyone.

Read more about the study here.