Embracing the Dark Side

Discerning the positive aspects of sadness, bereavement, and other negative feelings.

The laziness myth

Does laziness exist?

Human beings have a deep-seated need to grow and learn throughout their lives. Meaningful work fulfills that basic need to learn and grow. Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers discusses the characteristics of meaningful work: it is complex, it offers autonomy, and there is a relationship between effort and reward. Are some people inherently lazy, or are they simply non-productive when the work that they are being asked to do is not meaningful, and is therefore poorly suited to help them meet their basic needs?

If laziness does exist, what are the criteria that define it? If a person with a high-powered, high-paying job comes home each day and lies on the couch for an hour or two to watch TV, is that person lazy? Or is he simply caring for himself by taking a well-deserved break? What about someone who lies on the couch all day? Is there anyone who does this out of laziness, or would we instead be concerned that such a person is clinically depressed?

Too often, casual observers mistakenly attribute laziness to people who have mental illnesses like depression or anxiety disorders that impair their ability to work and be active. A person with compulsive hoarding, for example, is not "lazy" about cleaning or organizing their home. For a person with compulsive hoarding, throwing away a paper cup may be dreadfully difficult and stressful. For such a person, throwing away five cups may require immense courage and hard work - it would certainly not be a task for the truly lazy.

We attribute laziness to people when they have failed to do specific tasks that we value. We typically do not label people lazy when we have stopped to consider the fuller range of their activity and motivations. If we value the person, we would more likely attribute the absence of productive behavior to the competing needs and motivations that they must have to do other things, e.g., to relax or to do something other than the task that we wanted them to do.

Often, the people that we label as lazy are folks who are on the margins of the working world, like homeless people or low-wage workers. Labeling people "lazy" is a way of deeming them as morally unacceptable (sloth is a deadly sin) and deserving of their low status. If we call someone lazy, we do it to dismiss them, not to understand them.

Jenna Baddeley is working on a Ph.D. in social/personality and clinical psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

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