Appearing Busy Is the New Status Symbol

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Being busy has become a status symbol in the United States. In fact, the busier you are, the more important you may seem to other people, according to a study published in Journal of Consumer Research.

Credit: Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Taking long vacations and living a leisurely life were once considered the symbols of prestige, because only those who could afford to indulge in that kind of lifestyle did. But now, boasting about how busy you are and cutting down on leisure time are the marks of an in-demand, important person.

Researchers set out to understand why this shift in perception is occurring by conducting a series of studies with participants from mostly Italy and the U.S.

“We examined how signaling busyness at work impacts perceptions of status in the eyes of others,” write authors Silvia Bellezza from Columbia University, Neeru Paharia, and Anat Keinan, both from Harvard University. “We found that the more we believe that people have the opportunity for social affirmation based on hard work, the more we tend to think that people who skip leisure and work all the time are of higher standing.”

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Beyond appearing busy, using products and services tailored for a busy lifestyle are also seen as status symbols. For example, purchasing your groceries and having them delivered through online retailers, like Peapod, were considered just as prestigious as buying your groceries at an expensive store like Whole Foods.

“We uncovered an alternative type of conspicuous consumption that operated by shifting the focus from the preciousness and scarcity of goods to the preciousness and scarcity of individuals,” the authors wrote. “People’s social-mobility beliefs are psychologically driven by the perception that busy individuals possess desirable characteristics, leading them to be viewed as scarce and in demand.”

While a busy life is indicative of high status in the U.S. today, in Italy quite the opposite reigns true. Credit: Paul Lewin/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

While being overwhelmed with busyness at work denotes worth and importance in the U.S., in Italy the opposite is true. Italians still view a person who leads a leisurely life as someone of high status.

This cultural shift in the U.S. is becoming more and more apparent, the researchers explained. Advertising, which is typically a reflection of social norms, has even shifted to featuring busy people working long hours instead of wealthy people relaxing on vacation.

It’s even becoming more visible in our everyday lives — when asked about how someone is doing, it’s become more commonplace to reply with “Busy!” instead of “Fine.”

The rise of busyness and lack of leisure time may have a troublesome impact on our psychological well-being. Studies have shown that an increase in stress and feeling overworked can negatively affect happiness, well-being and even physical health.

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Danielle Tarasiuk
Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on AllDay.com, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.