Laziness has become an epidemic. We use emojis to express ourselves on smartphones, and reject people on dating apps with the swipe of a finger. If anyone can be bothered to share this article in a tweet of no more than 140 characters, they’ll probably caption it with the acronym TLDR (too long, didn’t read). And as we scroll through social media, our idleness is only thrown into relief by stories of those superhuman CEOs who survive on minimal sleep, head to the gym at the crack of dawn, and shun friends, family and hobbies. But should we really feel bad about laziness? For a word defined as “an unwillingness to use energy”, an awful lot has been expended in considering it.
Now Dr Isabelle Moreau, a reader in French early modern studies at University College London (UCL), is hoping to cast even more light on laziness by contextualising it in space and time, rather than simply contrasting it with “hard work”. She plans to unpack the idea at a “Politics of Laziness” session, as part of UCL’s Festival of Culture, which launches today.
Our obsession with being busy or lazy can be traced back in Western culture to the Christian sin of sloth, said Dr Moreau. But in fact, “laziness is a performative notion”, which can be used to “map clashing temporalities” as well as bodies that are neither “productive” nor willing to be “subjected”.
In other words, laziness can be a form of rebellion – or of self-affirmation; it just depends who is using the word, as well as the class, gender and race of the person being described.
Enlightenment thinkers, for example, were particularly interested in idleness. In this post-Renaissance period, religion, democracy and the monarchy were being scrutinised – while the French and Industrial Revolutions loomed– as was the way that male aristocrats wore their inaction as a badge of pride. “Idleness was seen both as a commodity and as a symbolic capital that defined a noble lifestyle,” she said.
However, such moralists as Jean de La Bruyère were disgusted by the “leisure effect”. He was particularly displeased with French salon culture, which he characterised as “a society of idle, frivolous women who spent their time and that of their male aristocratic counterparts in literary chit-chat and social games”. In truth, “They played an integral role in the cultural, social and intellectual development of France, particularly for women,“ said Dr Moreau.
Madeleine de Scudéry was among the most important figures of French salon culture. A writer and philosopher, she famously explored idleness in her “Carte de Tendre”, or the Map of Tenderness, which depicts the terrain that affection must conquer before it can blossom into love. To her, laziness was a beautiful, melancholic garden of leisure – and exile from the public sphere – in contrast to decadent Versailles, which embodied the monarch’s absolute power over nature and his subjects.
Nowadays, though, the concept of laziness has been re-cast by the Protestant work ethic of the Industrial Revolution. “Labelling is never innocent,” said Dr Moreau. “[In the 19 century] it was precisely used as a means to distinguish between the “undeserving” poor and the rest of us – and such attitudes persist today in lazy descriptions of the “workshy” on benefits, contrasted with “hard-working families”.
Such prejudice, said Dr Sandi Mann, a senior psychology lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire and author of The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom is Good, can be narrow and self-defeating. Her research has shown that laziness and boredom have a vital role to play in society.
“When we are bored we look for neural stimulation. One way to achieve this is to go inwards and let our minds wander and daydream. When we are freed from the shackles of conscious restraints, we may see things differently and look at new ways of doing things,” she said. “Boredom signifies that all is not well in our world. It can be a catalyst for change… and help us cope with information overload.”
According to Dr Mann, parents who try to eliminate boredom from their children’s lives risk losing the benefit, too. And Professor Gail Kinman, director of the Research Centre for Applied Psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, agreed. Rather than a negative sign, she said apparent laziness can be the symptom of an active mind. “It’s common for children who are gifted to come across as bored or underachieving – and they require more stimulation,” she explained.
Professor Kinman and her team hope to apply their research to the treatment of mental illness. “There is a link between boredom and depression, so labelling somebody as 'bored' may mean that they don’t get the medical help the require” she said. But there are also lessons to be learned at a more mundane level: “There is evidence that for people to perform to their peak ability they need to experience a certain amount of arousal or anxiety. Too little and they are bored and get careless, and too much means that stress impairs their performance,” she said.
“We need to see [boredom] as an important human state. If we know more about what makes us bored, we would perhaps learn more about what we find satisfying. If we didn’t experience boredom, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate engagement in activity that we find stimulating and consider how to make our lives more meaningful.”
And Dr Moreau concurred. “We should go for slow work as we go for slow food: quality over quantity, with spare time left to rest and think, not just to produce,” she said. “Boredom and laziness should be used as a means to regain control over one’s own body and one’s own time.”
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