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Kierkegaard On Escaping the Cult of Busyness

Busyness is the sign of a deeply unhappy person, and a way to flee from one's own life
busyness as unhappiness2
He was using his power to get sex. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

A 2016 article in the Journal of Consumer Research argues that busyness has become a status symbol.  In earlier societies, such as the 19th century Thorstein Veblen describes in his Theory of the Leisure Class, the wealthy conspicuously avoided work. They saw idleness as an ideal.  By contrast, contemporary Americans praise being overworked. They see busy individuals as possessing rare and desirable characteristics, such as competence and ambition. 

To respond philosophically to our new overworked overlords and status icons, we need only return to the 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard is known for his philosophical account of boredom, which is often associated with idleness. If busyness is the opposite of idleness, perhaps he can diagnose busyness also. 

Kierkegaard’s work emphasizes indeterminate experiences—experiences that are not about some particular object or thing. Kierkegaard’s discussion of anxiety is perhaps the best known example of this sort of experience. For him, anxiety is always about the indeterminacy of future possibilities. It is not worrying about some specific thing, such as embarrassing oneself on the first day of school. 

A comic by the artist Sarah Andersen helps capture Kierkegaard’s point. The comic depicts a conversation between a person and their brain, which tells the person that they are anxious. The person repeatedly asks the brain “Why?” The brain’s only answer is “Because.”  Anxiety is not about some particular thing, so it is impossible to point to some specific source of anxiety. With this feature of Kierkegaard’s philosophy in hand, we can now consider his understanding of boredom and busyness.

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"The busy person sows and harvests and rests upon these gains. But what is the purpose of this rest? Only to begin once more...nothing is gained by the cycle other than rest from the labor it requires."

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For Kierkegaard, boredom is indeterminate. A person is not bored by some particular experience.  Instead, they are bored by their inability to pay attention to and glean meaning from those experiences. Thus, as Kierkegaard writes under a pseudonym in Either/Or, “Boredom rests upon the nothing that interlaces existence.” The solution to boredom that Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous author proposes is a method called “rotation of crops.” This method involves changing the way one approaches experiences by approaching them as occasions for imaginative reflection rather than as those experiences are. For example, someone might choose to be entertained by the monotonous sound of water dripping from a roof. 

Some readers of Kierkegaard think that the above solution to boredom is akin to mindfulness training.  Others think that Kierkegaard proposes this solution pseudonymously in order to reject it. Our purpose here is not to enter into that debate (although one of us has done so elsewhere). Instead, we think that Kierkegaard’s discussion of boredom is key for understanding his view of busyness. 

In his Works of Love, arguably his greatest ethical text, Kierkegaard uses an agricultural metaphor to describe busyness:

''…the busy people sow and harvest and again sow and harvest (busyness harvests over and over again), […] the busy people store the barns full of what they harvested and rest upon their gains—alas, […] the person who truly wills the good in the same span of time does not see even the smallest fruit of his labors and he becomes the object of ridicule as someone who does not know how to sow, as someone who labors in vain and is merely shadowboxing…''

This passage can be read in light of Kierkegaard’s account of boredom. Like the bored person who rotates their crops, the busy person is described by way of an agricultural metaphor: sowing and harvesting and sowing again. And the bored person and busy person’s similarities do not stop there. The busy person is also experiencing something indeterminate, and is, like the bored person, worse off for doing so. 

For Kierkegaard, busy people are experiencing something indeterminate because their activities are not directed towards some particular good. The busy person may seem busy with some specific activity. In the case of the agricultural example in the passage above, the busy person appears busy with sowing and harvesting. The busy person sows and harvests and rests upon these gains. But what is the purpose of this rest? Only to begin once more, for “busyness harvests over and over again.” There is nothing gained by the cycle other than rest from the labor it requires. Since there is nothing definite gained by this busyness, we can characterize it as involving something indefinite—just like anxiety and boredom. 

We can compare our agricultural account of busyness with Kierkegaard's pseudonymous author’s oft-quoted criticism of busyness from Either/Or:

''The most ludicrous of all ludicrous things, it seems to me, is to be busy in the world, to be a man who is brisk at his meals and brisk at his work[…]What, after all, do these busy bustlers achieve?  Are they not just like that woman who, in a flurry because the house was on fire, rescued the fire tongs?  What more, after all, do they salvage from life’s huge conflagration?''

Here Kierkegaard criticizes busy people for not achieving anything meaningful with their labor.  Something similar is true of the busy people who sow and harvest only to sow and harvest once more. They are defined by their busyness rather than by the things that they are busy doing.

We have seen that both boredom and busyness are directed to experiences of indeterminacy, and that both can be harmful for those who experience them. Besides searching for new and different status symbols, how then might we respond to these phenomena? One response might be to adapt the rotation of crops for busyness. Perhaps someone might busy themself with multiple sorts of things rather than just cycling between labor and rest. 

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"Pursuing particular goods might provide us with the specificity we need to escape indeterminacy and the phenomena like anxiety, boredom, and busyness that accompany it."

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In light of Kierkegaard’s discussion of busyness from Works of Love, the rotation of crops may not appear to be an attractive strategy. Crop rotation requires constantly seeing the actual world as an occasion for imagination. It thus requires a retreat from the actual world.  Kierkegaard's pseudonymous author cautions the crop rotator to vigilantly avoid friendship, marriage, public office, and everything that would prevent them from constantly varying themselves. Crop rotation in this sense thus requires constant activity, and it is incompatible with meaningful, enduring commitments. If this is the case, this “aesthetic” solution to boredom found advanced by Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous author may merely be another form of busyness. 

How then might people escape busyness? Kierkegaard’s discussion of busyness in Works of Love may provide a clue. By contrast with the busy people who harvest repeatedly, the person who wills the good has no immediate gains to rest on. Their action—unlike that of the busy people—is in pursuit of something meaningful, even though they receive no apparent reward for it. However, there may be other benefits.  As recent psychological research also suggests, helping others can result in helping oneself. Pursuing particular goods—like striving to help the particular people you see, as Kierkegaard recommends elsewhere in Works of Love—might thus provide us with the specificity we need to escape indeterminacy and the phenomena like anxiety, boredom, and busyness that accompany it. 

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