The Art of Idleness

Research suggests that people will find any excuse to keep busy.

Posted Jun 25, 2015

Wikicommons
Source: Wikicommons

To be idle is to not be doing anything.

Idleness is often romanticized, as epitomized by the Italian expression dolce far niente (‘it is sweet to do nothing’). Many people tell themselves that they work hard from a desire for idleness. But although our natural instinct is for idleness, most of us find prolonged idleness difficult to bear.

Queuing for half an hour in a traffic jam can leave us feeling bored, restless, and irritable, and many motorists prefer to make a detour even if the alternative route is likely to take longer than sitting through the traffic.

Research suggests that people will find the flimsiest excuse to keep busy, and that they feel happier for keeping busy even when their busyness is imposed upon them. In their research paper, Christopher Hsee and his colleagues surmise that many of our purported goals may be little more than justifications for keeping busy.

We could be idle because we have nothing to do—or rather, because we lack the imagination to think of something to do. If we do evidently have something to do, we could be idle because we are lazy, but also because we are unable to do that thing, or because we have already done it and are resting and recuperating. Lastly, we could be idle because we value idleness or its products above whatever it is we have to do, which is not the same thing as being lazy.

Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria’s favourite prime minister, extolled the virtues of ‘masterful inactivity.’ As chairman and CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch spent an hour each day in what he called ‘looking out of the window time.’

Adepts of such strategic idleness use their ‘idle’ moments, among others, to gather inspiration, develop and maintain perspective, sidestep nonsense and pettiness, reduce inefficiency and half-living, and conserve health and stamina for truly important tasks and problems.

‘To do nothing at all,’ said Oscar Wilde, ‘is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual.’ 

Adapted from Neel Burton's new book, Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions.

Find Neel Burton on Facebook and Twitter.

Neel Burton
Source: Neel Burton

References

Hsee CK et al. (2010), Idleness aversion and the need for justifiable busyness. Psychological Science 21(7): 926–930.

O Wilde (1891), The Critic as Artist: With Some Remarks Upon the Importance of Doing Nothing.