there is nothing inherently virtuous about getting up early for work
“Lying in bed would be an altogether perfect and supreme experience if only one had a coloured pencil long enough to draw on the ceiling.” This is the beginning of ‘On Lying in Bed’, a lighthearted, yet no less substantial essay on the creative and moral benefits of idleness, written in 1909. In it, G.K. Chesterton praises the virtues of idleness, while deploring the fixed working routine imposed by society.
There is nothing inherently virtuous about getting up early for work in the morning but on the contrary, having carefree time to think is what strengthens our moral principles. ‘Misers get up early in the morning’ he quips, ‘and burglars, I am informed, get up the night before. It is the great peril of our society that all its mechanisms may grow more fixed while its spirit grows more fickle.’
More than a century later, neuroscience gives flesh to Chesterton’s metaphors, as it turns out that a state of idleness indeed benefits the creative abilities of our brain, as well as potentially improving our moral judgement. In his book “Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing”, author Andrew Smart explains how the areas of our brain responsible for connecting seemingly disparate ideas & creating new ones are in fact more active when your brain doesn’t do anything than when it does.
when we don’t worry about work, these areas connected with creativity, introspection and abstract thought flare up
The so-called default mode network (responsible for ‘idle’, introspective thought), the central executive network (the brain system that solves math problems and cognitive tasks) and the salience network (responsible for switching between the two) have been shown on an fMRI to be more active when we don’t have to solve a specific problem. When we’re not trying to carry out cognitive tasks, or when we don’t worry about work, these areas connected with creativity, introspection and abstract thought flare up.
As a consequence, there seems to be a connection between the ‘incubation period’ of a creative idea and our brain’s default mode processing, or ‘idle’ state. The ‘incubation’ period is a stage in the development of creative insight, the second of a set of four key stages in the creative process, where the unconscious rearranges random thoughts that we’ve had consciously at one previous point in time. It results in new, original ideas at a later point, and precedes that ‘a-ha!’ moment, which usually takes place in the shower, when taking a walk, or when you’re staring at the ceiling, drawing colourful lines with an imaginary pencil.
As another study explains, in our ‘idle’ state, our brain is involved in “self-awareness and reflection, recalling personal memories, imagining the future, feeling emotions about the psychological impact of social situations on other people, and constructing moral judgments.” This idle state seems to be, in short, responsible for making us better, happier, more creative human beings.
Happiness, however, seems highly underrated in our current times. We seem to focus on work and productivity now more than ever, and work often gets in the way of happiness, with anecdotal evidence ranking ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard’ as the second most popular regret among the dying.
this idle state seems to be, in short, responsible for making us better, happier, more creative human beings
As another 19th century essayist puts it, the only thing we need to learn is what makes us happy, as “there is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy.” In his ‘Apology for Idlers’, R. L. Stevenson commends skiving, laziness, the virtues of truancy, and warns against the perils of wasting one’s life in search of career goals and other overly delayed gratifications. “If you look back on your own education”, he writes, “I am sure it will not be the full, vivid, instructive hours of truantry that you regret; you would rather cancel some lack-lustre periods in the class”.
If idleness is so good for us, then why do we work so much? The answer comes from none other than Bertrand Russell, philosopher and idleness enthusiast. In 1932 he wrote an essay making the case for a 20 hour work week. ‘A great deal of harm’, he writes, ‘is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work . . . the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organised diminution of work.’
This prosperity, as we have seen, means not only personal happiness, but also a stronger chance that we behave morally towards each other, as our brain’s default mode processes inter-personal relations and the socio-emotional impact of our actions. However, religious thinking has sometimes had us believe the opposite. Russell himself was brought up on the saying ‘Satan finds some mischief for idle hands to do’, only to reject it in his writings as an adult. To this day, the saying encapsulates the protestant work ethic that still pervades much of the English-speaking world.
our brain’s default mode processes inter-personal relations and the socio-emotional impact of our actions
Decades later, British writer Will Self makes this ethos responsible for what he calls a ‘taboo against thinking’ in England. If people have time to think, they might come up with ideas that challenge the established order.
The world of work is, after all, divided into those that do, and those who tell others what to do, as Russell writes. Historically, those who have extolled the virtues of work (e.g. clerics) have never been in the former category, but the latter. Practising the opposite of what they preach, the idle class keep the others into submission through a rhetoric that sanctifies work and demonises idleness. The oppressed work for the oppressor in the faint hope of a future reward, which grows forever more distant.
This practice is a historical relic that must be done away with immediately, for “the morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery . . . to this day, 99 per cent of British wage-earners would be genuinely shocked if it were proposed that the King should not have a larger income than a working man.” Russell’s ‘day’ was of course 1932, but his observations hold true in 2015.
Another observation that proves perplexing for our 21st century, (post) social-media minds is this. “Modern technique has made it possible for leisure, within limits, to be not the prerogative of small privileged classes, but a right evenly distributed throughout the community.’’ Russell was referring of course to the Industrial Revolution and the technological advancements of early 20th century.
the world of work is, after all, divided into those that do, and those who tell others what to do
More than 80 years later, after 8 decades of ever developing ‘technique’, we still cannot say that leisure is ‘evenly distributed’. Google and Amazon are investing billions in robotics, and yet in some countries (paradoxically, some of the most developed ones) more than two thirds of the working population hate their jobs.
Russell was confident that ‘if the ordinary wage-earner worked four hours a day, there would be enough for everybody and no unemployment’. In 1930, economist J.M Keynes predicted that by the start of the 21st century, we would work only 15 to 21 hours a week, and our greatest challenge would be how to use our freedom from economic cares. Later, in the 70s, futurist and philosopher Buckminster Fuller famously put forth the idea that ‘one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest’ and thus urged us to do away with the ‘absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living’. A report in 2011 put the UK average working week at 42.7 hours compared with 41.6 across the EU.
How is it possible, Russell was asking, that when given the wonderful opportunity of producing twice as much in the same number of hours with the help of modern machinery, instead of deciding to work half the time, we’ve decided to work just as hard, overproduce and thus devalue our own work? In his thought experiment:
“Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?”
The argument of course echoes a similar marxist line of thinking, and some of Russell’s comments even seem to be a precursor to later anarchist trends. For instance, having divided work into two categories, Russell says of the latter (telling other people what to do) that “it is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given.”
instead of deciding to work half the time, we’ve decided to work just as hard, overproduce and thus devalue our own work
Thinker & activist David Graeber spoke of the similar ‘phenomenon of bullshit jobs’. ‘In technological terms’, Graeber says, ‘we are quite capable of [a 15 to 21 hour work week]. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshalled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. Huge swaths of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they believe to be unnecessary.” How many of us in large corporations haven’t had managers of managers who don’t appear to be doing much or whose role isn’t quite clear? This situation is profoundly damaging, says Graeber, on both a “moral and spiritual” level.
So, can we work less? Regardless of our political affiliations, we might easily agree that shorter working hours will benefit us on a human level. It might seem easy (and easily justifiable) to demand lower hours and higher pay, or casually denounce the greedy nature of capitalism and extol the fundamental sameness of all human beings. The real challenge however lies in providing the right practical framework for its implementation, without repeating the mistakes of the past. The question ‘can we work less?’ cannot be divorced from the social-economic framework that would provide it with a positive answer, or from the political worldview that would turn it into a reality. These are challenges that can form the subject of entire treatises, and cannot be disregarded as mere details.
the 40-hour work week should not be accepted as an inevitable status quo
The New Economics Foundation has so far been the only organisation to come up with a real plan of action. NEF insists that the 40-hour work week should not be accepted as an inevitable status quo, and the self-titled ‘think-and-do tank’ has opened a discussion on the possibility of reducing the working week, by inviting a panel of experts to weigh in on their Time on Our Side project. NEF have also come up with a strategy for gradually introducing the 21 hour work week. The full report on how this can be practically achieved is available here.
Until we figure out how to create the economic & political conditions for having more idleness and less work in our lives, it might be worth remembering that at least from a moral perspective, there is nothing particularly virtuous about work, nor anything ‘natural or inevitable‘.