The idea of laziness is everywhere. You’ve probably heard or said some of the following at some point: “People don’t want to work anymore,” “Work isn’t valued; we’ve become too lazy,” or “Laziness is bad.” As it becomes harder to find staff, recruiters are tempted to complain about the supposed “laziness” of candidates who ignore them and employees who leave them. You may have accused yourself of being lazy too. But where does this all come from? What does it mean?
In recent years, workers around the world have suffered from high levels of burnout, anxiety, as well as mental and physical exhaustion. There has been much talk about adopting a four-day week, and in the richest nation with the fewest paid holidays, there’s a new momentum to put holiday and parental leave on the agenda. In “flexible” and “hybrid” roles, employees often work a lot more – but they need to give themselves the freedom to be lazy.
For Dr Devon Price, a social psychologist and the author of Laziness Does Not Exist, this is a harmful ideology designed to push us into working ourselves to death. Convinced we are never doing enough and that our value is determined by our productivity and our level of exhaustion, we have forgotten how to listen to our bodies and our psyche. Price’s book explains how the “laziness lie” is hurting us more than ever and that it’s time to bust this myth.
Laziness isn’t a moral failing or a shameful personality trait – it’s a message from ourselves that we should learn not to ignore but to listen to better. It may be a sign that work has exhausted our cognitive and physical capacities, and that it’s time to rest so that we can renew ourselves. Or perhaps trauma, depression, or a difficult personal problem is stopping us from giving a lot of time and energy to work. Maybe the working conditions on offer aren’t acceptable because they don’t allow time to have a good work-life balance.
The laziness lie was invented by the Puritans and capitalists
Our work habits have varied greatly throughout history depending on the prevailing economic, social, and cultural context. What is sometimes seen as an unfortunate flaw has also historically been the target of many union struggles. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, workers have battled against the expectation that they can keep going night and day, even to the point of working themselves to death. Having become more productive through technological advancement, they’ve fought for the chance to work less, rest more, and live longer.
It would never occur to us to criticize an animal for needing sleep, so why do we judge each other so harshly? Price’s book focuses on this and analyzes the myth of laziness in light of American history. She writes: “The laziness lie is deeply embedded in the very foundation of the United States. The value of hard work and the evils of sloth are baked into our national myths and our shared value system.”
The word lazy entered the English language in the 16th century. This was not a coincidence as it corresponds to the rise of Puritan philosophy. The Puritans believed God would save only a few. People who worked hard and didn’t give in to fatigue were among the “chosen ones.” The Puritans believed that even if God hadn’t selected you to be saved, you should work diligently to let others know you were a member of the non-lazy group because lazy people were considered condemned, and nothing could be done to save them.
In American colonies at that time, the economy relied heavily on slave labor. The Puritan philosophy was convenient when it came to pushing slaves to work. Price writes, “It was very important to the colonies’ wealthy and enslaving class that they find a way to motivate enslaved people to work hard, despite the fact that enslaved people had nothing to gain from it. One powerful way to do so was through religious teachings and indoctrination.”
So that they didn’t have to offer a reward to slaves in this life, they convinced the slaves that if they were obedient, docile, and worked extremely hard, they might be rewarded in the next life. This represented a convenient religious ideology for slave owners.
How the laziness lie endangers us
For Price, the ideology behind the myth of laziness didn’t disappear with the (relative) decline of Puritan Christianity. The idea has evolved and freed itself from its Christian foundations. Industrial capitalism kept the idea alive: if workers can be convinced that it’s morally wrong to rest, then there will be plenty of obedient “soldiers” to operate factories at a lower cost.
It’s easy to understand that the concept of laziness is important to those who need workers to run their factories, but why is it so strong elsewhere too? It’s because we’re conditioned to think that way, Price explains. The myth of laziness has spread everywhere and is extremely harmful. The laziness lie tells us that every sign of weakness is something to be wary of, that we should never listen to our bodies, and that illness is not an excuse. It teaches us to fear and hate our most basic human needs. Price writes, “The Laziness Lie tells us that we’re all at risk of becoming slothful and unaccomplished, and that every sign of weakness is suspect. It has many of us convinced that deep down we’re not the driven, accomplished people we pretend to be. That the only way to overcome our selfish, sluggish instincts is to never listen to our bodies, never give ourselves a break, and never use illness as a reason to slow down.”
In reality, a feeling of “laziness” is a signal that we need to take better care of ourselves in much the same way that mental fatigue, dehydration, depression, or hunger are simply messages from our own bodies. If reading a single page of a book feels too mentally taxing, you can take that as a sign your brain needs a break, according to Price. If you’re feeling distracted, tired, and sluggish, your body and brain are in desperate need of rest. Price writes, “The thing we call ‘laziness’ is often actually a powerful self-preservation instinct. When we feel directionless, or ‘lazy’, it’s because our bodies and minds are screaming for some peace and quiet.” For the author, “wasting time” is a basic need. By welcoming laziness as a valuable message, we can make work more sustainable for our bodies, society, and the planet.
This myth makes us mean
The laziness lie has social consequences too. It leads us to judge others and blame social problems on simple laziness. Price writes, “Lots of people have been taught to see homeless folks as the epitome of laziness, and to believe that laziness is the root cause of homeless people’s suffering. This tendency to blame people for their own pain is comforting in a twisted way: it allows us to close up our hearts and ignore the suffering of others”
When we attribute success to non-laziness and failure to laziness, we convince ourselves that we are living in a meritocracy. In doing this, we start to ignore the importance of economic reform, social welfare, and our educational and healthcare systems. If you get only what you “deserve” based on the amount of work you are able to produce and the fatigue you manage to ignore, then there’s no need to help others or to set up public policies to ensure equality of opportunity for all.
In a way, the laziness myth fools us by taking our attention away from the root causes of social phenomena and individual problems. To label an employee “lazy” when they stop turning up at work on time is to choose to overlook any issues that may be affecting them such as childcare difficulties, sickness, bereavement, the inability to find housing nearby, and anything else that might affect their ability to get to work.
For Price, the remedies are simple: compassion and curiosity. By having compassion for “lazy people” around you, you’ll also be able to listen to and know yourself better. Going beyond the lie of laziness also means having a curiosity about others, and becoming a smarter and better person. Nothing less than that.
Translated by Lorraine Posthuma
Photo: Welcome to the Jungle
More inspiration: Laetitia Vitaud
Future of work author and speaker
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