[Article revised on 27 April 2020.]
Our nomadic ancestors had to conserve energy to compete for scarce resources and to fight or flee enemies and predators. Expending effort on anything other than short-term advantage could jeopardize their very survival. In any case, in the absence of modern conveniences such as antibiotics, banks, roads, and refrigeration, it made little sense to think long term.
Today, mere survival has fallen off the agenda, and, with ever increasing life expectancies, it is long-term strategizing and effort-making that leads to the best outcomes. Yet, our instinct, which has not caught up, is still for conserving energy, making us reluctant to expend effort on abstract projects with distant and uncertain payoffs.
Ambition and perspective can override instinct, and some people are more future-oriented than others, whom, from the heights of their success, they often deride as ‘lazy’. Indeed, laziness has become so intimately associated with poverty and failure that a poor person is commonly presumed to be lazy, no matter how little or much he actually works.
In general, people find it painful to expend effort on long-term goals that do not provide any immediate gratification. For them to embark on a project, they need to believe that the return on their labour is likely to exceed their loss of comfort. The problem is that they tend to distrust and discount a return that is distant or uncertain. People are poor calculators. Tonight they may eat and drink indiscriminately, without factoring in the longer-term consequences for their health, endurance, and appearance, or even tomorrow’s hangover.
The ancient philosopher Epicurus famously argued that pleasure is the highest good for man. However, he cautioned that not everything that is pleasurable should be pursued, and conversely, not everything that is painful should be avoided. Instead, a kind of hedonistic calculus should be applied to determine which things are most likely to result in the greatest pleasure over time, and it is above all this hedonistic calculus that people are unable to handle.
Many ‘lazy’ people are not intrinsically lazy, but are so because they have not found what they want to do, or because, for one reason or another, they are not doing it. To make matters worse, the job that pays their bills and fills their best hours may have become so abstract and specialized that they can no longer fully grasp its purpose or product, and, by extension, their part in improving other peoples’ lives. A builder can look with aching satisfaction upon the houses that he has built, and a doctor can take pride and joy in the restored health and gratitude of his patients, but an assistant deputy financial controller in a large corporation cannot be at all certain of the effect or end-product of his labour. So why should he bother?
Other factors that can lead to ‘laziness’ are fear and hopelessness. Some people fear success, or do not have enough self-esteem to feel comfortable with success, and laziness is a way of sabotaging themselves. Shakespeare conveyed this idea much more eloquently and succinctly in Antony and Cleopatra: ‘Fortune knows we scorn her most when most she offers blows.’ Conversely, other people fear failure, and laziness is preferable to failure because it is at one remove. “It’s not that I failed, it’s that I never tried.”
Yet other people are ‘lazy’ because they understand their situation as being so hopeless that they cannot even begin to think through it, let alone do something about it. As these people are unable to address their situation, it could be argued that they are not truly lazy, and, to some extent, the same could be said of all lazy people. In other words, the very concept of laziness presupposes the ability to choose not to be lazy—that is, presupposes the existence of free will.
I could close with a self-help pep talk or my top-10 tips for over-coming laziness, but, in the longer term, the only way to overcome laziness is to understand its nature and particular cause or causes: to think, think, and think, and over the years, slowly arrive at a better way of living.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.