How civilization broke our brains

By | December 26, 2020

Derek Thompson writes:

Several months ago, I got into a long discussion with a colleague about the origins of the “Sunday scaries,” the flood of anxiety that many of us feel as the weekend is winding down and the workweek approaches. He said that the culprit was clear, and pointed to late-stage capitalism’s corrosive blend of performance stress and job insecurity. But capitalism also exists Monday through Saturday, so why should Sunday be so uniquely anxiety-inducing?

The deeper cause, I thought, might have something to do with the modern psychology of time. Imagine the 21st-century worker as accessing two modes of thinking: productivity mind and leisure mind. When we are under the sway of the former, we are time- and results-optimizing creatures, set on proving our industriousness to the world and, most of all, to ourselves. In leisure mode, the thrumming subsides, allowing us to watch a movie or finish a glass of wine without considering how our behavior might affect our reputation and performance reviews. For several hours a week, on Sunday evening, a psychological tug-of-war between these perspectives takes place. Guilt about recent lethargy kicks in as productivity mind gears up, and apprehension about workaday pressure builds as leisure mind cedes power.

If only we could navigate our divided lives with seamless ease—except what if ease isn’t what most of us really want? In 2012, the University of Maryland sociologist John P. Robinson reviewed more than 40 years of happiness and time-use surveys that asked Americans how often they felt they either were “rushed” or had “excess time.” Perhaps predictably, he concluded that the happiest people were the “never-never” group—those who said they very rarely felt hurried or bored, which isn’t to say they were laid-back. Their schedules met their energy level, and the work they did consumed their attention without exhausting it. In an essay for Scientific American summarizing his research, Robinson offered a strenuous formula for joy: “Happiness means being just rushed enough.”

Despite the headline focus on happiness, Robinson’s most unexpected insights were about American discontent. We may constantly complain about our harried schedules, but the real joy-killer seemed to be the absence of any schedule at all. Considerably less happy than the just-rushed-enough, he said, were those with lots of excess time. He found, as other workplace studies have shown, that Americans are surprisingly fretful when not absorbed by tasks, paid or otherwise. And at the bottom of his rankings, registering an “unparalleled level of unhappiness,” were those whose plight may sound puzzling: people who, though they almost always felt underscheduled, also almost always felt rushed. Such is the psychological misery of an undirected person for whom an urgent need to overcome idleness—to find purpose—becomes a source of stress. This always-always condition struck me as the most peculiarly modern anxiety: It’s the Sunday scaries, all week long.

This bizarre need to feel busy, or to feel that time is structured, even when one is sprawled on the couch on a weekend afternoon—where does it come from? Is it inscribed in our DNA, or is it as much an invention of industrialized culture as paper clips and microchips? To answer that question, we would have to understand the texture of human life for most of our history, before civilization and workweeks edged their way into the picture. We would need a participant-observer from our era to live among hunter-gatherers and experience their relationship to work, time, and joy.

The anthropologist James Suzman has done a version of that, devoting almost 30 years to studying the Ju/’hoansi “Bushmen,” a tribe whose members lived an isolated existence in Namibia and Botswana until the late 20th century, when incursions by local governments destroyed their way of life. In his new book, Work: A Deep History, From the Stone Age to the Age of Robots, Suzman describes the Ju/’hoansi of yore as healthy and cheerful, perfectly content to work as little as possible and—not coincidentally—ingenious at designing customs that discourage competition and status-seeking. Combining careful anthropological research with excursions into sociology and psychology, he asks how we’ve come to find ourselves more harried—and seemingly more unhappy—than the small-scale communities from which civilization emerged. If there is some better way of handling modernity’s promises and pressures, perhaps the Ju/’hoansi can light the way. [Continue reading…]

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