Laziness Vs Procrastination Vs Idleness

We are being lazy if we are able to carry out some activity that we ought to carry out, but are disinclined to do so on account of the effort involved. Instead, we remain idle, carry out the activity perfunctorily, or engage in some other less strenuous or boring activity. In short, we are being lazy if our motivation to spare ourselves effort trumps our motivation to do the right or best or expected thing—assuming, of course, that we know, or think that we know, what that is.

Synonyms for laziness include indolence and sloth. Indolence derives from the Latin indolentia, ‘without pain’ or ‘without taking trouble’. Sloth has more moral and spiritual overtones than either laziness or indolence. In the Christian tradition, sloth is one of the seven deadly sins (the other six being lust, gluttony, greed, wrath, envy, and pride) because it undermines society and God’s plan and invites all manner of sin. The Bible inveighs against slothfulness, notably in the Book of Ecclesiastes: ‘By much slothfulness the building decayeth; and through idleness of the hands the house droppeth through. A feast is made for laughter, and wine maketh merry: but money answereth all things.’

Laziness should not be confused with either procrastination or idleness. To procrastinate—from the Latin cras, ‘tomorrow’—is to postpone one task in favour of another or others which are perceived as being easier or more pleasurable but which are typically less important or urgent. To postpone a task for constructive or strategic purposes does not amount to procrastination. For a postponement to amount to procrastination, it has to represent poor or ineffective planning and result in a higher overall cost to the procrastinator, for example, in the form of stress, guilt, lost productivity, or lost opportunities. It is one thing to delay a tax return until all the numbers are in, but quite another to delay it so that it upsets our holiday plans and lands us with a fine. Both the lazybones and the procrastinator lack motivation, but unlike the lazybones the procrastinator aspires and intends to complete the task under consideration, and, moreover, eventually does complete it, albeit at a higher cost to himself.

To be idle is, not to be doing anything. Idleness is often romanticized, as epitomized by the Italian expression dolce far niente (‘it is sweet to do nothing’). Many people tell themselves that they work hard from a desire for idleness. But although our natural instinct is for idleness, most of us find prolonged idleness difficult to bear. Queuing for half an hour in a traffic jam can leave us feeling bored, restless, and irritable, and many motorists prefer to make a detour even if the alternative route is likely to take longer than sitting through the traffic. Recent research suggests that people will find the flimsiest excuse to keep busy, and that they feel happier for keeping busy even when their busyness is imposed upon them. In their research paper (Hsee CK et al. (2010), Idleness aversion and the need for justifiable busyness. Psychological Science 21(7): 926–930.), Christopher Hsee and his colleagues surmise that many of our purported goals may be little more than justifications for keeping busy.

We could be idle because we have nothing to do—or rather, because we lack the imagination to think of something to do. If we do evidently have something to do, we could be idle because we are lazy, but also because we are unable to do that thing, or because we have already done it and are resting and recuperating. Lastly, we could be idle because we value idleness or its products above whatever it is we have to do, which is not the same thing as being lazy. Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria’s favourite prime minister, extolled the virtues of ‘masterful inactivity’. As chairman and CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch spent an hour each day in what he called ‘looking out of the window time’. Adepts of such strategic idleness use their ‘idle’ moments, among others, to gather inspiration, develop and maintain perspective, sidestep nonsense and pettiness, reduce inefficiency and half-living, and conserve health and stamina for truly important tasks and problems. ‘To do nothing at all,’ said Oscar Wilde, ‘is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual.’

Adapted from Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions.

Empathy Vs Pity, Sympathy, and Compassion

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In 1909, the psychologist Edward Titchener translated the German Einfühlung (‘feeling into’) into English as ‘empathy’. Empathy can be defined as a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person, fictional character, or sentient being. It involves, first, seeing someone else’s situation from his perspective, and, second, sharing his emotions, including, if any, his distress.

For me to share in someone else’s perspective, I must do more than merely put myself into his position. Instead, I must imagine myself as him, and, more than that, imagine myself as him in the particular situation in which he finds himself. I cannot empathize with an abstract or detached feeling. To empathize with a particular person, I need to have at least some knowledge of who he is and what he is doing or trying to do. As John Steinbeck wrote, ‘It means very little to know that a million Chinese are starving unless you know one Chinese who is starving.’

Empathy is often confused with pity, sympathy, and compassion, which are each reactions to the plight of others. Pity is a feeling of discomfort at the distress of one or more sentient beings, and often has paternalistic or condescending overtones. Implicit in the notion of pity is that its object does not deserve its plight, and, moreover, is unable to prevent, reverse, or overturn it. Pity is less engaged than empathy, sympathy, or compassion, amounting to little more than a conscious acknowledgement of the plight of its object.

Sympathy (‘fellow feeling’, ‘community of feeling’) is a feeling of care and concern for someone, often someone close, accompanied by a wish to see him better off or happier. Compared to pity, sympathy implies a greater sense of shared similarities together with a more profound personal engagement. However, sympathy, unlike empathy, does not involve a shared perspective or shared emotions, and while the facial expressions of sympathy do convey caring and concern, they do not convey shared distress. Sympathy and empathy often lead to each other, but not in all cases. For instance, it is possible to sympathize with such things as hedgehogs and ladybirds, but not, strictly speaking, to empathize with them. Conversely, psychopaths with absolutely no sympathy for their victims can nonetheless make use of empathy to snare or torture them. Sympathy should also be distinguished from benevolence, which is a much more detached and impartial attitude.

Compassion (‘suffering with’) is more engaged than simple empathy, and is associated with an active desire to alleviate the suffering of its object. With empathy, I share your emotions; with compassion I not only share your emotions but also elevate them into a universal and transcending experience. Compassion, which builds upon empathy, is one of the main motivators of altruism.

Adapted from Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions.

Envy or Emulation?

Envy is also a question of attitude. Whenever we come across someone who is better or more successful than we are, we can react with indifference, joy, admiration, envy, or emulation.

Envy is the pain that we feel because others have good things, whereas emulation is the pain that we feel because we ourselves do not have them.

This is a subtle but critical difference. By reacting with envy, we prevent ourselves from learning from those who know or understand more than we do, and thereby condemn ourselves to stagnation. But by reacting with emulation, we can ask to be taught, and, through learning, improve our lot. Unlike envy, which is sterile at best and self-defeating at worst, emulation enables us to grow and, in growing, to acquire the advantages that would otherwise have incited our envy.

Why can some people rise to emulation, while most seem limited to envy? In the Rhetoric, Aristotle says that emulation is felt most of all by those who believe themselves to deserve certain good things that they do not yet have, and most keenly by those with an honourable or noble disposition. In other words, whether we react with envy or emulation is a function of our self-esteem.

Adapted from Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions

Coping with Envy

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How to keep a lid on envy? We envy because we are blind to the bigger picture. For example, when we envy our neighbour for his shiny convertible car, we mostly ignore all the efforts and sacrifices that have gone into affording it, to say nothing of the many risks and inconveniences of driving such a car. In the words of Charles Bukowski, ‘Never envy a man his lady. Behind it all lays a living hell.’ In life, we are rich not only by what we have, but also and above all by what we do not. It is all too easy to forget that the investment banker or hedge fund manager has effectively sold his soul for his ‘success’, with so little spirit left in him that he no longer has the vital capacity to enjoy the advantages that he has acquired. Such a man is not to be envied but pitied. To keep a lid on envy, we have to keep on reframing, and reframing requires perspective.

Adapted from Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions

Shame Vs Guilt

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Shame and guilt often go hand in hand, which is why they are often confused. For instance, when we injure someone, we often feel bad about having done so (guilt), and, at the same time, feel bad about ourselves (shame). Yet, guilt and shame are distinct emotions. Shame is egodystonic, that is, in conflict with our self-image and the needs and goals of our ego, and high levels of shame are correlated with poor psychological functioning. In particular, eating disorders and many sexual disorders can largely be understood as disorders of shame, as can narcissism, which is sometimes thought of as a defence against shame. Guilt on the other hand is egosyntonic, that is, consistent with our self-image and the needs and goals of our ego, and, unless left to fester, is either unrelated or inversely correlated with poor psychological functioning. Faced with the same set of circumstances, people with high self-esteem are more prone to guilt than to shame, and more likely to take corrective or redemptive action.

Adapted from Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions

The Causes of Laziness

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Our nomadic ancestors had to conserve energy to compete for scarce resources and to fight or flee enemies and predators. Expending effort on anything other than short-term advantage could jeopardize their very survival. In any case, in the absence of modern conveniences such as antibiotics, banks, roads, and refrigeration, it made little sense to think long term.

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.

Ambition and perspective can override instinct, and some people are more future-oriented than others, whom, from the heights of their success, they often deride as ‘lazy’. Indeed, laziness has become so intimately associated with poverty and failure that a poor person is commonly presumed to be lazy, no matter how little or much he actually works.

In general, people find it painful to expend effort on long-term goals that do not provide any immediate gratification. For them to embark on a project, they need to believe that the return on their labour is likely to exceed their loss of comfort. The problem is that they tend to distrust and discount a return that is distant or uncertain. People are poor calculators. Tonight they may eat and drink indiscriminately, without factoring in the longer-term consequences for their health, endurance, and appearance, or even tomorrow’s hangover.

The ancient philosopher Epicurus famously argued that pleasure is the highest good for man. However, he cautioned that not everything that is pleasurable should be pursued, and conversely, not everything that is painful should be avoided. Instead, a kind of hedonistic calculus should be applied to determine which things are most likely to result in the greatest pleasure over time, and it is above all this hedonistic calculus that people are unable to handle.

Many ‘lazy’ people are not intrinsically lazy, but are so because they have not found what they want to do, or because, for one reason or another, they are not doing it. To make matters worse, the job that pays their bills and fills their best hours may have become so abstract and specialized that they can no longer fully grasp its purpose or product, and, by extension, their part in improving other peoples’ lives. A builder can look with aching satisfaction upon the houses that he has built, and a doctor can take pride and joy in the restored health and gratitude of his patients, but an assistant deputy financial controller in a large corporation cannot be at all certain of the effect or end-product of his labour. So why should he bother?

Other factors that can lead to ‘laziness’ are fear and hopelessness. Some people fear success, or do not have enough self-esteem to feel comfortable with success, and laziness is a way of sabotaging themselves. Shakespeare conveyed this idea much more eloquently and succinctly in Antony and Cleopatra: ‘Fortune knows we scorn her most when most she offers blows.’ Conversely, other people fear failure, and laziness is preferable to failure because it is at one remove. “It’s not that I failed, it’s that I never tried.”

Yet other people are ‘lazy’ because they understand their situation as being so hopeless that they cannot even begin to think through it, let alone do something about it. As these people are unable to address their situation, it could be argued that they are not truly lazy, and, to some extent, the same could be said of all lazy people. In other words, the very concept of laziness presupposes the ability to choose not to be lazy—that is, presupposes the existence of free will.

I could close with a self-help pep talk or my top-10 tips for over-coming laziness, but, in the longer term, the only way to overcome laziness is to understand its nature and particular cause or causes: to think, think, and think, and over the years, slowly arrive at a better way of living.

Adapted from Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions

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