Looking for Connection in a Culture of Busyness
How loneliness continues to be prevalent in our current hurry-up environment and one way to solve it — by spending more time together
When Silvia Bellezza began researching busyness culture for a 2017 paper, she and her colleagues found that people who have this type of lifestyle ingrained into their professional routines are not seeking the luxurious things in life.
Instead, it is a culture of people intending to boast and to signal how busy they can be, which speaks to their value and skills in the U.S. labor market.
Bellezza, the Gantcher Associate Professor of Business in Marketing at Columbia Business School in New York City, wanted to consider whether or not a sense of busyness meant more riches or if it was more of a status symbol.
"What we found is that in the U.S., people think that the busier person must be of higher status."
In a 2017 interview with The Atlantic, Bellezza said that the sense of busyness as a status symbol was more present in American work culture.
"We were very inspired by this idea of bragging and complaining with others about how much we work and trying to understand whether it operates as a symbol of status in the eyes of others," Bellezza said.
"So in one experiment, we presented participants with a person that's posting status updates on social media that really speak to her busyness at work, compared to another person whose posts speak to a more leisurely lifestyle."
"We wondered: What would participants make of these people? Would they think that they are wealthy? That their status is high, or not? What we found is that in the U.S., people think that the busier person must be of higher status."
Bellezza added that the model of the U.S. work culture — to the rest of the world and the job as part of the identity — was prevalent. "We did a lot of research on different cultures and specifically the extent to which work and leisure matter and are central to the identity of the people," Bellezza said.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and professional and personal lives blurred, the culture of busyness became different.
"We thought that the U.S. is really representative of a society in which work is really praised and the Protestant work ethic is really, really strong — even the extent to which in the U.S. people don't even have the right to have paid holidays," she noted. "And we wanted to compare this to a culture in which leisure time and what you do when you're not working is as central as work."
But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and professional and personal lives blurred, the culture of busyness became different. Front and center, among the many daunting questions we tried to answer each day, was a sense of anxiety about what was ahead mixed with a desire for connection — knowledge that we were not alone with our doubts.
This was especially true for caregivers like me who sought reassurance as we wondered if we were doing right for the parents we helped care for. For me, it was also an attempt to figure out my professional prospects due to the economic impact of the pandemic. Connection, in those years when the world came to a screeching halt, meant a great deal.
Now, with working routines having returned to pre-pandemic expectations, and public health emergencies expired, the culture of busyness once again reigns supreme.
But, unfortunately, it is a culture that appears to be the direct opposite of what is necessary to help people recover from the impact of the pandemic — a sense of connection to reduce isolation and loneliness, especially in instances where the pandemic exacerbated fraught circumstances.
Cultural Norm vs. Individual Action
There are the social catchups and conversations, the ones that you try to schedule. You understand that things happen and the day gets away from you — and you realize that you need to reschedule that coffee or call that person back tomorrow because something came up, and the day you envisioned didn't go exactly as planned.
But what happens on days when the world can be too much to handle, that you want to talk to a friend who understands — and you end up trying to no avail? For an increasing number of younger caregivers, that connection with a close friend can be the one thing that helps propel them forward as they try to make sense of the questions they face while trying to be the best caregiver possible.
Isolation then increases, and you think something is wrong with your relationship. However, don't be too quick to blame the individual in this case for something ingrained into a distinctively American sensibility.
"The solution is for us to hang out more, to come together more, to do something in person that you care about and do it with other people."
Christine Whelan, clinical professor of Consumer Science at the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says an individual's work ethic is at the core of what it means to be an American. You demonstrate to other people you are pulling yourself up by the bootstraps and are busy, indicating a sense of success.
"Affluence and busyness seem to go together as status symbols," Whelan said in a telephone interview. "It is easy to criticize it, but the culture demands it from us. We need to be careful about individual actions versus cultural norms."
Whelan says there was a noticeable difference when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, including socioeconomic differences. No two pandemic experiences were alike. Nevertheless, the pandemic presented an opportunity to consider whether this type of hurry-up culture was worth having in daily life.
According to Whelan, many of us have since adapted to old routines; circumstances may have dictated that, including the economic pressure many faced.
"There was a pervasive sense of concern that this could go wrong," Whelan said. "Our world was shaken in a big way by the pandemic, and I wonder, whether unconsciously, our busyness is a panicked reaction."
The Solution — Spend Time Together
Whelan adds that we are in a loneliness loop – we are more anxious because we are more isolated, and the impact does more harm than good.
"Human capital is investment in ourselves, while social capital is our network and who can help us," Whelan said.
"If we could come together more and think about the fact that your individual problem is a problem shared by many, we would be less lonely, more accepted and work toward social change."
"We have less social capital as we become more isolated. We have fewer opportunities when things go south. We are in a vicious cycle," she noted. Yet, while we know the issue is out there, why haven't we done anything to fix it?
We are simply creatures of habit — which is why it is often said that the simplest thing can often be the most important thing. So Whelan's solution, for the moment, is simple — get together, no matter what the reason might be.
"The solution really is for us to hang out more, to come together more, to do something in person that you care about and do it with other people. Whether it's a park clean-up or going bowling, it doesn't matter what, just do it with other people," Whelan said. "Those (kinds of) relationships are the greatest predictor of happiness and wellbeing. When we lose them, we lose happiness and social capital."
This is the reason Whelan requires her students to attend class in person. "I am going to do all I can to get these people in front of each other and talk to each other," she said. "It's a small thing but it is my statement against the idea of doing everything virtually and in an isolated way."
She added, "If we could come together more and think about the fact that [one person's] individual problem is a problem shared by many, we would be less lonely, more accepted and work toward social change."