The Business of Busyness

Recently I received a ”forward” in FB which says: “Being busy is the secret of happiness”. Look at the logic put forth. “The busiest people are the happiest people(really?). Being busy gives one self-esteem and confidence. The flow of adrenaline when one is busy gives a feeling of  exhilaration, purpose and achievement. Being busy means you are bettering yourself and pushing your boundaries. You don’t get time for negative thoughts. It’s indeed the only solution to all human maladies”. Isn’t this complete nonsense? On the face of it, it sounds great and who ever reads will get carried away and instinctively pass it on to others as if it’s a great discovery. In case you are wondering why I disagree with this completely, here’s my defence:

Let me start off on a lighter note and quote  Ronald Reagan ( American president during 1980s) who was known for his ready wit and wisdom. Well, I’m not too sure about his wisdom but I have no doubts about his ability to come up with witty one-liners like the one below. Some one asked him why he shuns hard work and gets away to his ranch to relax every week-end. He said: Well, I know hard work doesn’t kill. But why take a chance?”. I’m sure you will dismiss this defence and laugh it off. That’s the power of witty one-liners, though. The interviewer would laugh it off and move to his next question.

Let me now go to the other extreme and quote a serious thinker and philosopher Albert Camus. He says: Of all the ridiculous things on earth, the most ridiculous thing is to keep oneself busy all the time. In his book titled The myth of Sisyphus, he dwells into his philosophy of the absurd. He compares the present plight of the common man with that of Sisyphus, a character from Greek mythology. The story goes that the gods condemned Sisyphus to a worthless task of lifting a rock from the bottom of a hill and carry it all the way to the top of the mountain only to allow it to roll back again to the plains. Sisyphus would have to go back again to the foot of the mountain and start all over again. The punishment was meted out by the angry gods since he apparently leaked out the secrets of the gods. There was no escape from this punishment​ until his death. Albert Camus says this is the plight of the entire humanity today.

We seek happiness through purposeless drudgery. We are busy like a bee the whole day. When we come back home, we are too tired to do anything except watch TV. We then go to bed only to get up and start all over again. This is the curse of the modern civilization. Isn’t this dehumanizing? The comparison with a bee is perhaps not appropriate since bees are busy for a purpose.

The tragedy is we don’t get time to reflect on our plight unlike Sisyphus who gets time to reflect on his fate the moment he completes the task of carrying the boulder to the top of the mountain. That’s his period of introspection and awareness. For, when he is busy carrying the rock, he has no time to think. But alas, a guy working in a city today doesn’t get any time for reflection on his pathetic condition!

Coming back to the FB forward I received, there is a complete misunderstanding between excitement and pleasure on the one hand and real happiness on the other. The flow of adrenaline gives one temporary excitement and pleasure which dissipates within a short time and reality of boredom bites once again. Therefore, one is compelled to keep chasing more excitements for more adrenaline flow and pleasure and the show goes on and on ad infinitum. You are, in other words, escaping from reality which you cannot face. This was precisely the sad plight of Sisyphus in the Greek mythology and this is the tragedy of the modern man too.

Let me share a secret. The glorification of ”busyness” is a historical conspiracy of the intellectuals. Plato and Aristotle set the ball rolling when they declared that drudgery or hard work was meant for the slaves. It seems that in Athens, during 5th & 6th century B.C, 30000 aristocrats had nothing useful to do since 200,000 slaves were being driven to do all the hard work (The slaves were called the Barbarians by the Greeks). The intellectuals had nothing to do except​ to indulge in arm-chair philosophy besides activities like hunting. The influence of these philosophers could be seen almost until medieval times in Europe. People from affluent families, the so-called aristocrats, were not expected to do any hard work while the poor worked hard. But all this changed abruptly after industrialization to such an extent that even the richest billionaire today cannot afford to relax. Being busy is a matter of prestige and status in the industrialized societies irrespective of whether one is rich or poor. Today, Busyness is being eulogized as a virtue. By whom? Ironically by those who are not busy themselves  – the intellectuals who have plenty of time in hand and have nothing useful to contribute to society. They condition everyone into believing that hard work is the only way to succeed in life and success is again defined by them.  The net result is that  everyone else takes it as the gospel truth and keep working hard without any respite or purpose like our tragic hero Sisyphus of the Greek mythology.

This is not a thesis against hard work or being busy per se.  Life has many dimensions and one needs to appreciate that the leisure time activities are as important or even more important than just being busy for the sake of some imaginary concepts of success.

Social media “forwards” are often very misleading and the gullible fall for it. These “forwards” perpetuate myths by insisting on the readers to forward to all their contacts.

Published in: on April 1, 2017 at 10:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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