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Are you lazy if you’re not busy? The problem with the American way.

by Matthew Hutson

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It seems almost an American tic to talk about how overloaded with work we are. “How are you?” “I’ve been so busy.” “How’s work?” “Ugh, crazy busy!”

New research suggests that we use a lack of time as a status symbol, bragging about our packed schedules. This phenomenon, however, may have unhealthy side effects.

In the first of several studies to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers analyzed tweets collected by the infamous Twitter account Humblebrag. They found that the most common type of humblebrag mentioned a lack of time. For example, “I have been so ridic busy w meetings and calls that I have neglected my fans.”

How do people respond to such complaints? In another study reported in the paper, participants imagined that a friend had posted three Facebook updates during the week displaying either busyness (“Oh I have been working non-stop all week!” “Quick 10 minute lunch,” “Still at work!”) or leisure (“I haven’t worked much this week, had lots of free time!,” “Enjoying a long lunch break,” “Done with work!”). The participants rated how much competence and ambition (or what the researchers called “human capital”) the hypothetical friend had. They rated how in demand and scarce the friend was. And they rated the friend’s status, in terms of social status, wealth, and income. The busy friend was seen as higher in human capital, and in turn more scarce and in demand, and in turn higher in status.

Still, the association of busyness with status is not held universally. “In Italy, leisure time operates as a status symbol,” says Silvia Bellezza, an Italian researcher at Columbia Business School and the lead author of the paper.

“I worked for some years in the corporate world in Italy,” she says. “In June and July, all people are talking about is where you’re going on holiday.” Those who don’t go anywhere are seen as lacking funds—and also as uninteresting. “Because leisure really defines you,” she says. “What you do in your leisure time is almost as important as what you do when you’re working.”

To test her intuitions, Bellezza and her collaborators asked Americans and Italians to read about a man who “works long hours and his calendar is always full” or one who “does not work and has a leisurely lifestyle.” The American participants deemed the busy man as higher in status than the leisurely man while the Italian participants considered him to be lower in status. Italians commented that the less busy man may come from a rich family and may face less pressure to work.

These cultural differences may arise from differences in the perception of social mobility. In another study reported in the paper, the researchers found that Americans believed more strongly that people could work their way up in the world, and in another, they found that Americans inferred status from busyness only if they believed strongly in mobility. So, Americans seem to think, hard work leads to status (more than status leads to hard work).

“Social media makes it a lot easier to signal status through busyness than it used to be,” Bellezza says. Previously, a select group of people could see you spent your time, but now you can broadcast it to everyone at all hours.

Although humblebragging about a “crazy schedule” can be annoying, Bellezza suggests it might be preferable to conspicuous consumption. “I think it may be a more sustainable and less consumeristic way to display one’s status,” she says. “Since the ‘scarce resource’ that we are showing off is our human capital, rather than an expensive product, it may be a more environmental-friendly signaling strategy.”

Still, busy-badging might encourage some people to forego sanity. Without it, “I personally think that we would be in a healthier society,” Bellezza says. Scandinavian countries, sitting in a Goldilocks position between Italy and the United States, “really got the formula right,” in that they have a lot of vacation time but also a lot of productivity per hour. “When you’re working, you’re working well, but you’re also resting when you rest.” After a certain number of work hours, efficiency drops off, and you need mental bandwidth to recuperate and gain perspective.

One way to solve the dilemma, Bellezza suggests, is to reward people for output rather than time: if you get the work done early, go home. She points to companies like Netflix and the Virgin Group, which allow unlimited vacation days as long as employees meet certain work goals.

Since moving to the U.S., Bellezza says she has started to take on American mores. She jokes that she almost tries to avoid returning from vacation with a tan because otherwise “people think you’re not as serious.” But her inner Italian fights back, insisting: “I think there should be nothing wrong about going on holiday and bragging about it.” If you’re going to share vacation photos, though, you’d better make sure they’re interesting.

Matthew Hutson

Matthew Hutson is a freelance science writer and the author of The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking. He has degrees in cognitive neuroscience and science writing and has written for Wired, The Atlantic, Newsweek, The New York Times, and Psychology Today, where he was an editor. Follow him on Twitter @SilverJacket.