The modern obsession with being busy is diminishing our lives, writes Hugh Mackay.
'How are you going? All right?" used to be the standard Australian greeting, incorporating our charming tendency to answer our own questions. But we've now adopted a more sinister form of greeting that sounds like a symptom of a society in the throes of madness.
"How are you going? Busy?" is the new greeting and, to my shame, I actually used it recently when I ran into a friend at a concert. "Busy?" I asked, before I could stop myself. "Ah," he wisely replied, "just busy enough to justify telling people I'm still busy."
Busyness has become the new badge of honour. If you're not busy, you must be dead, or on the scrapheap. If you're not busy, you must have fallen victim to the demon drink or gone to the dogs. Not busy? Good grief, what a loser.
"How are you going? Busy?" is like a relentless spur we use to urge each other on, creating a personal version of the old Cold War promise of "mutually assured destruction": if we all stay busy - if we cling to each other in this desperate, dizzy dance - none of us will notice what's actually happening to us and we'll all be dead before we realise it.
So why all this frenetic busyness - or, at least, the need to maintain the appearance of it? When did we decide that having a full plate was a virtue? Whatever happened to the idea that we need time to nurture our personal relationships, to think, or even not to think? ("Don't just do something - sit there!" sounds like a smarter injunction than the original version.)
For some of us, the seeds were sown in childhood when we were assured that "Satan finds mischief for idle hands to do". No one mentioned what goes on at the other end of the spectrum, where Satan's greatest mischief is keeping us so busy that we don't have time to ponder the mysteries and meanings of our lives.
"If you want something done, ask a busy man to do it" was another maxim tossed around in my youth. I'm sure it was meant as a compliment: busy people are better organised, the folklore ran. Now, I'd be inclined to see it as an insult: if someone is foolish enough to have taken on too much, they'll probably be foolish enough to take on one more thing.
It goes without saying that, up to a point, staying active is likely to keep you young. Mild levels of stress are apparently good for us. Some structure in the day gives us a necessary sense of purpose.
But it's very easy to slip over the line that divides healthy activity from busyness for its own sake, and to assume that inactivity is somehow letting the side down.
When it comes to working hours, we've gone berserk. We work longer hours than most comparable countries: in overtime alone, the full-time workforce is absorbing thousands of jobs that could have gone to someone else.
The British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell once proposed a four-hour day, and he was only half-joking. His point was not only that, with a bit of reorganisation, this would guarantee enough work for everyone, but that we might then turn our minds to the wiser use of leisure and the enrichment of our lives.
His observation, back in 1935, was that people were working such long hours that they were too tired to enjoy active and civilising leisure pursuits, so they fell into passive forms of recreation - going to the cinema, watching sport, listening to other people play music, etc.
For Russell, the combination of more education (especially in the liberal arts) and more leisure was a recipe for a more creative, fulfilling and contented life. And that seems to accord with present social research: people typically say they are concerned about the lack of balance in their lives, but seem powerless to do much about it.
Or do we really like being too busy? Is busyness the great escape from emotional engagement with the rest of our lives?
The ancient Latin poet Ovid may have got it right: "You who seek an end of love, love will yield to business: be busy and you will be safe." In other words, if you stay busy enough, you'll be protected from the demands of love. Plenty of wise heads have echoed that sentiment.
Perhaps it is time to take stock and ask ourselves why all this rushing, all this pressure, all this busyness? Is it a sign of our inefficiency that we can't organise ourselves to spend fewer hours at work? Are we consumed by hubris, to the point of believing we are indispensable?
Are we, perhaps, compensating for emotional emptiness at the centre of our lives; distracting ourselves from some cosmic loneliness?
Or are we, as Ovid implies, merely trying to avoid the risks, the demands and the joys of love?
Hugh Mackay is a social researcher. This article originally published in the Age, 17 September 2005.
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