“The ‘Busy Trap” by Tim Kreider, New York Times (30 June 2012)
“Enough is enough of the age of consumption” by Robert and Edward Skidelsky, Financial Times (4 July 2012)
During the past week, I’ve seen Tim Kreider’s above article, “The ‘Busy’ Trap” quoted/posted on Facebook/tweeted/retweeted nearly a dozen times (if you combined both my personal and my professional web addresses).
The gist of the article is as follows: Society is evermore busy. Society wants to be busy. Society can’t stand not being busy and perishes the thought of idleness. Even our children need to be busy. The article embeds 1000 other arguments that society has collectively heard over and over again for the past decade (and has failed to make changes)–we work too hard, we don’t play enough, when we do play, it’s work, we check Facebook too often, we don’t stop to smell the roses, we’re too concerned about things, etc. You get the drift.
I think back to a line from my favorite book, Fight Club: ” The things you own end up owning you.” We live in an age where materialism/consumerism meets anti-materialism/consumerism and yet paradoxically, the coexistence of these constructs hasn’t managed to annihilate society. I even question if the Puritan/Protestant work ethic has enabled American and British societies to meet their spiritual demises.
Enter the Skidelsky’s op-ed a few days later…
The gist of the article is as follows: Economists predicted we’d save so much, we’d drive ourselves into consuming just what we need. Instead, we’ve worked to improve consumption by improving goods, so we consume more. Yet as a society, the richer we are, the poorer we are. In order to compensate, we fall into “serial consumption” or the “consumption treadmill.” And there are ways we could be nudged away from such consumption.
Maybe it is the annhilation of society.
Literature is replete with studies on happiness and treadmill effects. Take, for example, this article by Mathias Binswager (2006 Journal of Socio-Economics). The more income grows, the more people try to “get ahead.” This ability to “get ahead” is predicated by “busyness”, and so forth. In reality, the treadmill is exactly what it’s a metaphor for: a device that presents an illusion of forward motion, requiring the user to perform such motion as to not fall off, but without achieving actual forward motion. This explains why people don’t really get happier when they get richer (or get more “stuff”).
That said, I’m wondering if there’s another phenomenon at work here. Perhaps the demands of busyness are largely due to materialism. In their article, “The Safety of Objects: Materialism, Existential Insecurity, and Brand Connection”, Rindfleisch, Burroughs, and Wong (2008) found a relationship between materialism and existential insecurity. In lay terms: people buy more stuff because they’re afraid of dying. The consumption treadmill has become Church.
Perhaps what these articles are really calling for is a return to spirituality–not in the spirituality of objects and the process of attaining those objects, but the spirituality of humanistic or theistic religions. Yesterday, the world was awed by news of the discovery of the Higgs boson, aka, the “God particle”, which ties the mass of the universe together. And while the science vs. religion debate can go on until the cows come home, it’s a vast universe out there; both science and religion are about seeking answers to the big questions of life. Perhaps the materialism void that’s leading to busyness needs to lead back to spirituality instead in answering these existential questions.
I’m not advocating any religion in particular here–people ultimately believe in whatever they want. But it strikes me as though the mental, physical, and social benefits of finding inner peace are far greater than anything provided by outward consumption. Perhaps we need to return to understanding why we own the things we do, that way things we own don’t end up owning us afterall.