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The Swaddle: Does ‘Laziness’ Exist? Research Says, It’s Complicated

From The Swaddle: Lazy is an adjective of disdain. Lazy employees are bad employees; lazy people are unambitious; lazy friendship is undeserving; lazy love is a red herring. Anything and anyone lazy instantly is condemned to take on the mantle of the self-indulgent, idle figure who deserves judgment for their choice of picking languor over productivity. Sloth is sin, we’re told. But somewhere between “I’m feeling lazy to work” and “lazy Sundays,” we’ve lost sight of what laziness really is, why we demonize it, and if it exists beyond being a manifestation of our anxieties. Ask yourself what it means to be lazy. Do you think of someone who barely does anything? Or who does things albeit slowly? Maybe one who does nothing? Perhaps, someone who doesn’t desire to do anything, at all? Each question leads to a rabbit hole different and deep, compelling people to further scrutinize ideas of work culture, capitalism, social forces, human fallibility, and fatigue. Laziness intrigues the human mind because we’ve been cautioned against its dark charm. A more interesting question to ponder here is if laziness actually exists, and if anyone can be intrinsically lazy. It helps to pivot attention to literature on laziness. Laziness may figure as a concept if we understand it to mean someone who does nothing or is slow. Psychiatrist Neel Burton interprets an evolutionary reasoning: “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,” he wrote. This idea creates two categories of people and disrupts how we’re primed to think about laziness: those who are ambitious and have the perspective of the future, and those who are “instinctually” programmed to focus on self-preservation. This theory also served as the basis of a 2018 study, showing how people may just be wired to prefer relaxation over physical activity. “Conserving energy has been essential for humans’ survival, as it allowed us to be more efficient in searching for food and shelter, competing for sexual partners, and avoiding predators,” the authors said. Their research meant to explain why people would choose to not exercise even when they were made aware of the health risks; the answer they found was that brain activity in itself nudges people toward a sedentary lifestyle. By juxtaposing “activity” and “ambition” with “conserving energy,” laziness in popular imagination then refers to an inertia — both physical and mental. This feeds into ideas that laziness is for the weak and unsuccessful; an excuse for not being competent or talented enough. It’s helpful to debunk this imagination. What if one simply doesn’t want to adhere to mainstream ideas of competence, talent, or success? Does that mean they don’t do anything? For one, people are simultaneously wired to detest doing “nothing” too. In theory, we understand that any mental and physical strain is tedious; opting for the low-hanging fruits is convenient and comforting, so the logical next step is to take the path of least resistance. This is what Zipf’s Law — also called the “principle of least effort” — dictates too. Take John Atanasoff, who built the first electronic digital computer; he famously did it because it was too much work and too much time to perform calculations manually. But in practice, a study found just how many times people do things they don’t really need to, even things that require more work and are painful. “Sometimes we take the easy route and do as little as we can get away with, but at other times we value situations more if we have to expend considerable effort. The intrinsic joy of the effort gives us so much pleasure that we don’t take the shortcut. We might spend hours puzzling over a cryptic crossword instead of using a search engine to find the solution,” explained Claudia Hammond in BBC. This is what some experts also call the paradox of effort. Even behavioral economist George Loewenstein has argued that people will go to all sorts of lengths to do things, and achieve goals, even when they don’t need to. What this tells us is that at every point in time, people recalibrate which decisions require effort, and which don’t. Which are valuable, and which aren’t. Tenacity is learned and then expended at each juncture, so laziness as a catch-all term for the things that capitalism mandates may not quite apply. Read more at The Swaddle.