capri What the Albanians, Italians & French Got Damn Right (Research on Busyness as a Status Symbol).

By the end of the year, we all start to reflect on the past and plan for the future.

Many people make New Year resolutions, promising themselves to stop smoking or start exercising once January arrives.

These are the most common New Year’s resolutions according to data from 1450 Americans:

  1. exercise to get in shape (19.7%)
  2. diet to lose weight (18.3%)
  3. save money (14.8%)
  4. eat healthier in general (11.9%)
  5. self-care (5.5%).

People like to think that resolutions are about willpower, but I kinda disagree. They’re about reclaiming our time.

That’s why New Year resolutions seem so powerful- it’s as if birthdays and new week starts were on steroids.

Time, Comparison, and Milestones

Time is a trippy concept. Like money, it’s a popular source of the root of all evil, comparison.

Society has some pre-defined milestones you should reach to be considered successful. As soon as we’re born, we come along with a manual of breakthrough moments and when they should happen- our first word, our first steps, potty training, then learning to count and write, finishing high school and university, getting a job, getting married and having kids.

It’s a tale as old as time, no pun intended.

Time, Productivity, and Being “So F*cking Busy”

Besides milestones, time is associated with productivity and busyness.

“Busy” has become a common answer to the question: “How are you?”

In primary school, we used to send our friends holiday cards like it was nobody’s business. They all circled around the same silly quotes and inside jokes, but writing and receiving them was such a pleasure.

One year, we just stopped doing that because we grew up. What do the adults who still send them write about in their cards, now that childhood crushes are no longer a thing?

As it turns out, research on holiday letters has shown that since the 60s, references to “crazy schedules” have notably increased (Schulte 2014).

Busyness as a status symbol

I came across a study that I have to share. It’s something I’ve unconsciously known for years, but science always helps me articulate opinions.

You may or may not know I’m Albanian. Albania is part of the Balkans, a small indigenous country near Italy and Greece.

I’ve written a bit about our painful background history here and there, but there’s so much to cover when it comes to us.

One thing’s for sure- our culture is very, very different from the Western one.

Cultural differences for being busy, Albanians, and coffeeshops

We’re very opinionated, so I’ve frequently had conversations about the way we live, work, and enjoy ourselves in relation to North Americans.

Albanians are notorious for our coffeeshops. It’s probably our favorite activity. People go up to 3-4 different coffee shops in a day with friends or colleagues.

You probably have a coffee before work with colleagues, then another during lunch break. If you’re feeling tired, you might have another at work, then meet your friend for coffee after work. You might meet your girlfriend or another friend and move to alcohol territory, or, you guessed it, get another coffee.

What I found out is that in Italy, leisure time, vacations, and having the time to have five coffees a day, are seen as a status symbol, whereas in the States the opposite is true. This paper by Belleza, Paharia, and Keinan on busyness as a status symbol is fascinating.

This is so funny to me as an Albanian who is in frequent contact with Americans.

Being able to take time off and go on vacations often is a cause of envy for Italians and Albanians. If you have the means to relax, you must be doing something right.

Nell blu dipinto di blu. Capri Photo by Ellena McGuinness

When I read this study, I kept imagining an Italian man at the beach in Capri, dressed stylishly all in white, enjoying his wife’s company while they savor their drinks and talk about nothing and everything.

And I thought of the people at the resort or the people who knew these two, scratching their head, feeling a bit jelly, wondering what they’re doing right to be living so nicely.

How Americans perceive lack of leisure time

Instead, Americans see busyness and lack of time as a status symbol of people who are rich, successful, and important. This is a reflection of the American Dream, which roughly states that no matter who you are, if you work hard, you can make it in America. It’s a central part of American “rise and grind” culture.

The paper also covers the way ancient philosophers looked at work and time.

In 44 BS, Cicero said: “A citizen who gives his labor for money degrades himself to the rank of slaves.”

Leisure time was seen as the “conventional mark of superior pecuniary achievement.”

Busy people are considered a scarce resource since busyness also signals competence and ambition.

Another important distinction. People with fewer economic resources who are seen as having no choice but to be busy working overtime or two jobs aren’t perceived to have a higher status.

For example, notable author Michael Pollan (2013) argues that marketing messages by the processed food industry flatter consumers’ sense of busyness, implicitly telling them, “You don’t have time to cook, you’re too important; you’re a loser if you have time to cook.” Our findings support the notion that appealing to consumers’ lack of time could be a form of flattery, making consumers feel their time is very valuable.

Conspicuous Consumption of Time: When Busyness and Lack of Leisure Time Become a Status Symbol, Silvia Belleza, Neeru Paharia, and Anat Keinan

People like to feel busy and marketers like to take advantage of that.

The Cut features a weekly “How I Get It Done” column, where personalities explain how they manage alllll their commitments. Ironically, this is the excerpt of their latest piece: “As the founder of the Vaccine Confidence Project, a nonprofit monitoring and addressing public trust in vaccines, Heidi Larson has never been busier.”

But is busyness really tied to success, financial wealth, or achievements?

This remark from Ashley Whillans on Behavioral Scientist concludes my point (I’m team Italian, in case that wasn’t obvious from my previous articles/life approach).

“We know that making $10,000 more in household income results in a point five increase in life satisfaction. I basically said, “Well, what is the impact on life satisfaction of all these time related choices: exercising more, working less, savoring more, feeling less busy, focusing more on time versus money?” I worked out that even if you spend about $150 per month to outsource your disliked task of house cleaning, this produces a happiness equivalent of making $40,000 more of household income per year. (Calculated based on estimate of someone making $50,000/year). So some of the small changes we make around the margins can have really huge impacts for our happiness.”

In a year, French people take 21 more vacation days than Americans (Krueger et al. 2008). Long working hours and no leisure seem like the Albanian/European nightmare.

Just by spending $150 per month to outsource your unhappiness-bringing tasks, you could make your life so much more enjoyable. Taking a few more days off or time to yourself won’t make you lazy or unsuccessful. Quite the opposite, the Italians and I would say.


However you’ll be choosing to spend your time this new year, I would like to wish you a beautiful new year and happy holidays. And thank you for being here, whether you’ve read these since 2018, whether you found me a few months ago, or whether this is your first article, I’m so grateful you gave me your time and attention.

Comments

Yes. Well said. Busyness, consumer consumption, societal status, etc. The “trippy” concept of time and what it means to us as an individual. “Trippy” is a good description. Humans defining themselves through consumption of “stuff”. Rather then enjoying leisure time with all the space that less consumption would provide. Go team Italian!!

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