The first few times he practiced sitting still and silent, he felt edgy, almost itchy. The peacefulness of his surroundings oppressed his senses. Without tasks, without a phone to reach for, he felt totally out of control.
“I felt suffocated by the stillness, the silence, the lack of activity,” said Benjamin Shalva, author of the book “Ambition Addiction: How to Go Slow, Give Thanks, and Discover Joy Within.” He likened this feeling to a “real sense of withdrawal,” only not from alcohol or gambling, but from busyness.
For Shalva and for a growing number of people amid an expanding mindfulness movement, confronting that sickening feeling is the whole point in moving past it. Quite simply, they’re tired of being so busy.
“All ambition addicts, no matter the activity, venue, or great and glorious goal, have at least one behavior in common — we are running for our lives,” Shalva writes. Shooting off emails, constantly refreshing social media, and even rushing bedtime with the kids — all to stay ahead in some invisible race. Slowing down not only seems laughable but physiologically dangerous.
Whether one calls it ambition addiction, busyness addiction, or something more specific, such as workaholism, the headlong rush toward elusive and sometimes undefinable goals is a particular issue in Western culture. For Americans, “We pride ourselves on being very productive. The pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps ethos still holds true,” said Shalva.
But productive for whom, asks Georgetown assistant professor Neeru Paharia, co-author of the 2016 research paper, “Conspicuous Consumption of Time: When Busyness and Lack of Leisure Time Become a Status Symbol.” Work seems the obvious answer, but then the busyness bleeds into our free time until we’re rushing through family dinners, only to head home and tick off emails before bed and before tomorrow’s official work day. All the while, we’re complaining about how busy we are. In fact, Paharia argues, our busyness has become a badge of honor, a sign of “productivity,” proof of how much we are needed. Busyness has become “as important to signal your status to other people as it is for yourself,” she said.
It comes down to status partly because few modern tasks are actually necessary for survival, so we’re actually making up activities to fill time. “I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter,” writes essayist Tim Kreider. “They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.”
“The reason we’re busy is because we’re afraid,” echoes Shalva, whose early experiments with meditation tended to overwhelm more than calm. Indeed, a 2014 study showed that participants reported an aversion to being alone with their thoughts for just six to 15 minutes. In one group, 64 percent of men and 15 percent of women chose to administer electric shocks to themselves rather than sit with their thoughts.
But the term “addiction” gets thrown about loosely these days. There isn’t much clinical research on the neuroscience of perpetual busyness. We can draw comparisons to related conditions, such as workaholism, however. In a 2016 large-scale meta-analysis, researchers found workaholism was positively related to job stress, work burnout, decreased job satisfaction, greater work-family conflict, decreased life satisfaction, and poor physical and mental health. According to one of the study’s authors, University of Georgia assistant professor Malissa Clark, workaholism is driven by introjected motivation, a compulsion or feeling of guilt that a person “ought” to be doing something productive. She suspects busyness operates the same way. “This is different than behaviors driven by intrinsic motivation, where people do things because they enjoy it,” she says. “So the motivator [with busyness] is not to seek out positive emotions, but to calm down or stifle negative emotions.” Either way, we’re not enjoying ourselves.
To truly move past negative emotions, we have to confront them. Or at least sit among them. Suppressing thoughts only fuels them until, one way or another, our bodies and minds force us to take note.
Shalva felt himself approaching that edge. So, he began practicing sitting still. When that cloying nerviness came up, he tried a simple approach: With each natural breath, he repeated in his mind, “I am breathing in.” When he breathed out, he told himself, “I am breathing out.” It was a powerful grounding tool. He likens it to discovering a buoy amid a rough sea. Eventually, the surrounding waves will calm, but the buoy remains, a strongly tethered signal of your safety in this moment.
It won’t be easy at first. The inertia of busy, contemporary life packs a built-in challenge to slowing down. But a mindfulness-based approach — being still and observing one’s thoughts, without fighting them off or chastising painful feelings — is shown to improve wellbeing and job performance with fewer work hours.
“Being still and existential, there is a release on the other side: relaxation, joy, attention to detail,” says Shalva, who eventually became a meditation coach and spiritual guru of sorts. He enjoyed the work, but once he found himself scrambling for Twitter followers, he backed off once again. Now he’s trying his hand at writing fiction. Regarding his book of short stories, “It’s taking a long time,” he said, “and that’s okay.”