philosophy of busyness

    So I’ve been pretty intrigued by this concept of busyness lately.  Don Opitz mentioned something about it when we were at Summer Institute, and I’ve chewed on it for a little while.  The more pragmatic definition (from what I remember from Don) is that people, more often than not, fill their lives with busyness because the tasks of reflection and deep discussion are much more difficult, and perhaps open us up to things about ourselves we don’t enjoy thinking about.  A much more thoughtful and I guess accurate blurb is below from this webpage.

One simple definition is this: it is the state of being engaged in constant activity. Despite the sometimes complicated nature of philosophy, this simple and practical definition should suffice. The reason for this is because this state of constant activity is something that we can empirically verify in contemporary American society. When individuals lack the time to engage in very important activities – such as interpersonal, in-depth conversation, or, more importantly, reflection – we can point to busyness as the culprit. Furthermore, in the name itself, busyness refers to a philosophy because it is a modern-day set of values by which some live. In other words, people try and want to be busy because it provides some value to them. Along with its close relative, over-commitment, busyness is a socially desirable state. Recently, while reading the Nicomachean Ethics along with some commentaries on Aristotle, I began thinking what would Aristotle think about this topic of busyness. Of the numerous ideas that Aristotle advocated, there is one that is pertinent to this matter. Aristotle tackled the notion of happiness in the Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, and Ethics. He defined happiness, the Greek word eudemonia, as the complete and sufficient good that is desired for itself and not desired for the sake of anything else. In other words, happiness is the end of man. It is not a means to an end, it is the end. If you continue to ask why someone does something, it will eventually end in the reason, “to be happy.” If you agree with Aristotle’s assessment that happiness is the end of man, then busyness must be a means to an end according to Aristotle. However, does busyness lead to happiness? When one is asked, “Why are you busy?” how many can truly answer “to be happy”? This can only be answered by recognizing the notions that comprise Aristotle’s doctrine of happiness.

According to Aristotle, “Happiness is an activity of soul in accordance with perfect virtue.” Happiness is a state of being that is achieved through virtue. This virtue that he writes about is composed of moral virtue and intellectual virtue. Moral virtue is attained through habituation and is expressed in moral action while intellectual virtue is attained through learning and teaching and is expressed in knowledge. These two together make up the components of happiness according to Aristotle. Busyness, as many understand it today, must be virtuous in order for one to assert that he or she is busy in order to be happy. In The Politics, Aristotle claimed that we need virtue not just to work properly but also to use leisure well. The point of all this is that the busyness that one is involved in must, to some degree or another, be virtuous or it will not pass the Aristotelian test. It is only in being virtuous that busyness leads to the final end of man – happiness.

There are instances when busyness is needed and unavoidable. But all too many times, it is engaged in as an end rather than a means to a proper end. The technological age that has been developing for the last half century has indirectly led to an unprecedented busyness. Technology, with its advanced equipment and time saving measures, was created to decrease the amount of time needed to accomplish meaningful work and other tasks needed in everyday life. This has been accomplished but it has unintentionally produced the busyness that we find today. With extra time on our hands due to the efficiency of modern technology, other tasks have been squeezed in resulting in more work and over-commitment yielding busyness. Ideally, technology and the efficiencies it should provide should not be about creating more work but rather, about what to do with the extra time on our hands as a result of technology. But this has not been the case.

Many in Western culture seem to believe that busyness leads to happiness without critically examining what they are busy doing and why they are doing it. Being busy itself is what they’re after. The “contemporary notion of happiness” (notice the change in the way we even refer to happiness) describes happiness as an immediate gratification of one’s desires with the goal of achieving personal pleasure and satisfaction. It is characterized by short-term activities that place great emphasis on pleasurable feelings that have no significant and beneficial long-term effects on our intellectual and moral growth as human beings.

Christian philosopher, J.P. Moreland, along with coauthor Klaus Issler have just released a new book titled, The Lost Virtue of Happiness. The author’s objective is to examine happiness and the different understanding between the modern concept of happiness and the ancient concept of happiness. Regarding the importance of personal pleasure and satisfaction to the modern notion of happiness, J.P. Moreland states, “If pleasurable satisfaction is our goal, then day by day, from morning to night, we will be looking inside ourselves, constantly taking our own happiness temperature. Our activities and other people will be mere things, mere objects that simply exist as means to our own happiness.”

Moreland’s statement is an excellent assessment of happiness. When we reduce happiness to merely our personal satisfaction, we end up with a society of self-indulgent individuals unsuccessfully attempting to attain happiness. If personal satisfaction rather than virtue is the driving force behind our busyness, that is when busyness can become detrimental to our well-being. This statement is Aristotelian: Aristotle believed that there is no inherent connection between happiness and pleasure. Pleasure is a by-product of true happiness. But there is an inherent connection between happiness and virtue. This last idea is behind the ancient understanding of happiness.

This is something I’m dealing with right now, as we speak.  I’m not busy at all.  The most work I do is reading and writing papers, studying for the GRE, and some support raising.  The rest of my time is spent is quiet, with no one around.  I can go an entire day not being busy.  I think I enjoy it the least because I have to think and reflect more than I want to.   I’m trying to postulate why it’s so difficult, and I think it’s a mix of home grown blue-collar, Protestant hard-work in my blood that tells me that work is important, but if you can’t work, it’s better to be busy; and perhaps a more sinister feeling that I just don’t plain like to reflect on myself.

I have found, however, that I’m my most peaceful when I’m doing something not self-directed.  For instance, I’m meeting with a student, I’m comforting a friend, I’m dealing with things not about myself, what largely the second except deals with.  The more I’m willing to lose my life, the more I’ll gain it.  That’s obviously hard to do when you live alone and hardly anyone is living in your building.

I know this is incoherent, but I guess I’m just trying to reason all of this out.  Hopefully at some point I’ll have something more.


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