Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock
Source: Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock

Movies, magazines, and popular television shows often highlight the abundance of money and leisure time available to the wealthy. For example, in Downton Abbey, Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, asks, “What is a 'weekend'?" because she has no notion that most people work for five days and then take a two-day break. According to Thorstein Veblen, the scholar who theorized about the lives of the wealthy, the rich signal their status to others not only by wasting money on functionally useless products (e.g., diamonds), but also by wasting their time: The wealthy can spend time on leisure, because they do not need to work.

However, counter to the realities of the past and Veblen’s predictions of the future, our research has found an opposite pattern — in which being busy with work has become a more valuable status signal. A common response today to the question, “How are you?” is “Busy!” People post on Facebook about their incredibly busy lives. Celebrities complain of “having no life” on Twitter, because they are “so busy.”

Why are busy people seen as having more status? On a broad level, in American culture, people believe that status can be earned. Consistent with the notion of the American dream, those who work hard are seen as having the ability to climb the status ladder. Compared to cultures where status is based on inheritance (e.g., coming from a well-respected family), Americans tend to idolize those who are self-made. Being busy is a sign that one has the ambition and competence to move up the ladder.

On a more micro level, busy people are viewed as being scarce and in demand. Much research has shown that people are attracted to scarce products, because they are viewed to be more valuable. In our research, we find that a person who is busy is also seen to be a scarce resource, because they have little time available. Like a rare gemstone, this scarcity makes them appear higher in status.

In a series of studies, my co-authors and I found that, in general, Americans believe that people who are busier are inferred to have higher status. We varied "busyness" in a variety of ways, including whether someone posts on Facebook about being busy with work, compared to being less busy with work, or that someone walked around with a Bluetooth headset, as opposed to a pair of music headphones. Across our studies, we found that a busy person was viewed to have more status, because they were perceived as more competent and ambitious, as well as to be more scarce and in demand. This effect was robust, and it occurred whether the target person in question was viewed to be from a lower or higher socio-economic status.

However, we found that not all people and cultures make busy-status inferences. In particular, Italian participants viewed a person who spent more time on leisure activities as having a higher status. In Italian culture, there may be a stronger sense that status is inherited rather than earned. A similar pattern was found for Americans who do not believe there is social mobility in society. Thus, the busy-status inference is really conditional on a view that one can move up the status ladder.

What are the implications for this busyness-status effect? On the one hand, there may be benefits: Rather than trying to signal status by spending money, one can more cheaply signal status by appearing to be busy. On the other hand, being busy can bring the negative side effects of over-working (e.g., the long-term negative impact on well-being and health), and create pressure for others to be busy.

When someone tells you how busy they are, and you feel that twang that you should be doing more, think twice.

Neeru Paharia is an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. She co-authored the study “Conspicuous Consumption of Time: When Busyness and Lack of Leisure Time Become a Status Symbol.”