For us downshifters, this is the good guy: Epicurus of Samos…
Today’s world for some reason raised working to a kind of religion.
It seems that without being stressed, without having a “challenging” job, without being busy all day, the modern man or woman is nothing.
At the job, admitting that one has little to do, has a relaxed position or that today coffee-drinking was the predominant task, is close to admitting having leprosy or syphilis.
Someone who is not busy (or does not constantly pretend to be busy) or who is admitting he does the job only for the money is quickly labeled as an outcast. “There must be something wrong with this guy – isn’t he having fun working and being busy?”
Even in their free-time, people do everything to constantly stay busy. Free time activities are squeezed into every single free minute, the idea of productivity and time=money thus even rules our spare time.
Here is a little experiment:
Try out and tell your colleagues on monday on the obligatory “what did you do at the weekend?”-question: “I did nothing but hang out idling“. Do this three weeks in a row and you WILL get some strange looks.
Or ask to reduce to working part-time and try as an argument to your boss: “I’d like to idle and hang out each friday”. For some strange reason this will work less good than saying “I need time for my family, my side business or for preparing for my Mount Everest hike”.
Why is this fixation on work and busyness so predominant in modern times?
I mean after all, today’s world is amazingly productive, so much work is done by machines, wealth is enormous in western societies and beyond everything that people 50 or 100 or 500 years ago would ever have dared to dream of.
So why the hell are we not able to relax a bit?! To let go and accept the status quo for what it is: Great!
This might seem like old-fashioned thinking in today’s world, as the idea of “productivity” and “performance” is so deeply entrenched in most people that they never in their life question this idea.
But I really think there is a kind of religious motive here.
Let’s go back in history a bit. Back to the first society that consciously and systematically thought about what it means to live a good life:
In ancient Greece, the perception of work was clear. It was considered an unfortunate and unwelcome element of life. Something one has to do to get his/her food. But apart from that, work was considered as something that distracts you from developing yourself, enjoying life and having “muse” (Tell someone that this weekend you plan to have some “muse“. They will send you to the doctor!). Consequently the Ancient Greek developed a rich philosophy of happiness, among others my favorite author of that time: Epicurus.
It is funny enough, but I think from then on – and this was 2.300 years ago (!) – the overall societies’ focus on having a good live never again reached that level. It was replaced by something else: To have a productive and successful life. Whereas successful now is defined by “achieving something“, which in turn is set equal to accumulate wealth, possession, status, victories of some sort or power.
If you define success by “having a good life” – enjoy your days, avoid stress and avoid any harm and bad feelings, get free from desire, enjoy time with friends and simple pleasures – this is how Epicurus defined it – you are likely to be labeled as somehow strange, lazy, unwilling or unable. In the best case people will just think you are odd, but in all cases they will not think you lead a successful life (while you do exactly that).
However, this “ancient” values is exactly what you should focus on.
Protestant work ethics
…and this is the bad guy: John Calvin.
A huge caesura was the Lutheran work ethics, and later on the even more drastic Calvinist / Protestant ethic from 16th century on. It was at this point of time that salvation by god was no more taken as anything granted but as something you have to earn. And you have to earn this by being productive and hard-working (Protestant work ethic). It was at this time that the unpleasant formulas “time equals money”, “wasting time is a sin” and “work is an end in itself” came into the world and in fact the philosophy of capitalism was born.
Thus even today, as religion is gone for so many, this strange conditioning still stays in the subconsciousness of people and the society: Salvation comes as a consequence of hard work. And, probably even more so as other ideas of “salvation” are becoming scarce with religion being in retreat.
OK, let’s be fair and admit that calvinism also fostered the excellent idea of democracy and distribution of power. And capitalism and hard work brought huge progress to the world. It made possible all the developments, progress and all the wealth that we are able to enjoy today. Good, thanks for all that. Anyway, let’s be honest guys:
It is a good time to harvest now!
In a western society progress was so huge, wealth is so abundant, that from now on it is really not important to increase consumption and production any more. To the contrary it becomes unhealthy from this point on. Environment is harmed enough, resources are become scarce, other societies in the world have more need for growth than we do and people here get victims of the accelerated change and crazy, senseless growth.
So after centuries of restless growth, it is more than time to take it easy and relax a bit for a change.
And YOU should start doing so today! Especially if you are having an ok or even good job in a western society. Yes, it will mean some pain, because damn, you have to break out of the mass and you have to think about something else to replace the worship of busyness. And this process of thinking is not easy. But before you back away, ask yourself the question:
Do you really want to except that all the meaning of your life is working as efficient as you can, be as productive as possible, earn as much money as possible, climb as many career steps as possible, collect status and power and then be done with it after – don’t know – 30 years, ready to decline slowly and then retire? Do you want that to be your life?
If the answer is YES, fine, go back to work NOW. Nothing wrong with it if this makes you really happy.
If the answer is NO however, then, dear friend, there is no way around thinking what you actually want to do with your life. And very likely this will mean efficiency, work and busyness stepping back. Giving up some career and some professional “achievements” for something else. If you have no idea what to do else yet, start with some heavy loafing and idling (in other words train to have some “muse“) and see what comes to your mind.
And you can easily shift down as an employee in most modern workplaces. Of course you still should honor your work contract, but fortunately there are a million strategies on how to make everyone happy and still don’t have too much stress at work .
Not that I want to encourage anyone to grind less of course, but if you would like a bit of help to optimize your job towards more efficiency and less stress (an altruistic goal, isn’t it? As stress is bad for health and thus for society…), an interesting book for a start is said to be:
Die Faultier Strategie
(“the strategy of the sloths”, German only. Let us know about similar books in English or German!)