150 Years Ago, a Renowned Philosopher Called Busyness the Sign of an Unhappy Person

“Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy," Kierkegaard wrote.

If you’re reading this on your phone, rushing to the subway while hunting for your headphones, then you need to stop. At least, that’s what Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher who lived at the beginning of the 19th century, would advise. Last week, brainpickings pointed out just how relevant Kierkegaard’s writings on busyness are to our lives today.

And indeed, as we race from the office to the gym to a dinner, proudly showing off our jam-packed schedules, it’s worth remembering Kierkegaard’s warnings about busyness from centuries ago. He wrote:

Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy—to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work… What, I wonder, do these busy folks get done?

Stephen Evans, a philosophy professor at Baylor University, explains that Kierkegaard saw busyness as a means of distracting oneself from truly important questions, such as who you are and what life is for. Busy people “fill up their time, always find things to do,” but they have no principle guiding their life. “Everything is important but nothing is important,” he adds.

Without answering crucial and terrifying questions about life, without deciding on a unified purpose, Kierkegaard believed that one could not develop a self. He called those with without one unified purpose “double minded,” and argued that this mindset causes busyness.

And so busyness and lack of self are a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. “If you don’t have a self, you don’t want to be aware of that,” Evans says. “You always have to stay busy.”

Kierkegaard’s concerns about busyness are also connected with his view of time, and the importance of living in the present. “The unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself,” he wrote. In other words, obsessing over future goals, and keeping frenetically busy with an eye to some far-off date, is a way of distracting oneself from present reality.

Of course, it’s possible to have an active life without being busy. Kierkegaard says that religious love, for example, is “sheer action.” But it’s action suffused with constant knowledge of a unified purpose, and so a sense of calm pervades the activity.

Avoiding busyness, especially in a time and society that seems to expect it, is not easy. But Karl Aho, who recently presented a PhD dissertation on Kierkegaard’s notion of time at Baylor University, argues that it’s a worthwhile goal—and that, by refusing to address the important questions, and instead living a “double minded” and busy life, one can become afraid to commit to a single person and cause, and so can lead to missing out on one’s calling or marriage. It’s worth reading Kierkegaard, for all the nuances and style of his argument, but contemporary comedian Aziz Ansari has made a similar point, suggesting that our incessant FOMO (fear of missing out) prevents us from focusing and committing to one person.

If Kierkegaard had this view on busyness in the 19th century, he would likely be both amused and terrified by our frenetic pace and myriad means of distraction today—using Netflix to distract ourselves from contemplative solitude, deriving meaning from likes we receive on Facebook, and constantly evaluating our surroundings according to how they’d look on Instagram, rather than simply engaging in the present moment.

Though perhaps he wouldn’t be surprised. Philosophers such as Josef Pieper and Mark Tietjen have argued that Kierkegaard saw busyness as a form of sloth—at the other extreme to laziness, but a vice just the same. Busyness may not look like sloth as we typically imagine it, as a person lolling around and refusing to engage in any activity, but it’s a form of mental or spiritual apathy, a refusal to take up genuine and meaningful work and so, in this sense, it’s lazy.

On this reading, Aho says, Kierkgaard diagnosed busyness as a common flaw of the human condition. And so while it may be exacerbated by contemporary technologies, it’s not unique to our times—and will not subside unless we make a conscious effort to root ourselves in the present and engage with bigger questions to find meaning in life.