We have had an ongoing discussion about America’s loneliness epidemic, and the cultural values that are actually isolating us more than connecting us. We suffer from individualism, where life is more about you than those you’re with. We suffer from consumerism, making us reluctant to commit to a community if it goes against our precise expectations. We suffer from isolationism, living in isolated suburban fortresses with privatized entertainment and digital services that allow us to never leave the house. We suffer from an obsession with cell phones and social media, that actually turn out to be not-so-social.
Today we’re going to tackle another American cultural value that’s hindering us from cultivating meaningful friendships and finding community:
America is a workaholic culture. We’re all about efficiency, focusing on how much we can get done in as little time as possible. This “efficiency” fiasco is the consequence following the industrial period when the average person worked in factories and assembly lines. Efficiency was the top priority for this line of work, and the efficiency mentality has continued into today’s workforce. However, a massive difference between the industrial period and today is that the average worker is a “knowledge” worker, not a factory worker. We utilize brain power over muscle memory to do our work. Therefore, we try to be as efficient as we can by cramming in all the tasks and responsibilities expected of us into our days to the point we wish we had 36 hours in a day to accomplish everything.
In his book, Free to Focus, Hyatt says, “…technology gives us unprecedented access to information, other people, and, of course, our work. We can now work wherever and whenever we want. Our technological marvels haven’t made things better. In fact, they’ve made things worse. The promise of the smartphone was that it would make it easier for us to get our work done, improve efficiency, and give us more time to focus on things that matter. But has your smartphone or tablet magically given you more free time? I bet it’s done just the opposite.” (29)
The ability to work on whatever we want, whenever we want, wherever we want means we squeeze as much work into our days as possible. In exchange, this often leaves us with overworked hours and an eternal to-do list that never ends. Hyatt goes on to give some startling statistics:
“According to gallup, the average American workweek is closer to 50 hours than 40. And one in five works 60 hours or more… It’s professionals and office workers who rack up the most hours. In one study of a thousand professionals, nearly all—94 percent—said they clocked fifty hours or more each week. Nearly half that number worked more than 65. Factor in long commutes, family commitments, and other demands, and even marginally overstuffed schedules cause us to steal time from the margins; the same study found professionals spend about 20-25 hours each week out of the office monitoring work on their smartphones.” (31-2)
No wonder another study of a particular company said 95% of their employee’s lack of retention was due to burnout. Clearly, the evidence shows we are not designed to work this much. We are literally dying by overworking. One other study shows that at least 120,000 deaths per year in the U.S. alone are due to workplace stress.
I think it goes without saying that the average American worker barely has time for rejuvenation on her own, let alone time to be spent with family, friends, and life-giving activities. In her book, Life Together in Christ, Ruth Haley Barton adds, “People are busy, urban settings seem more dangerous, and the exhaustion that results from our busyness lends itself to driving straight into the garage and entering our home or apartment without even acknowledging our neighbors.” (42)
Hyatt says, “When we can’t get free of our work obligations, we can’t be fully present to our family and friends or take the necessary downtime.” (35) He goes on to say, “The important people in my life deserve the very best of me, and I don’t want to shortchange them just so I can spend extra time and energy worrying about work.” (36) Dang….
It’s no wonder time to just be with friends gets pushed to the side. We’re literally too busy for friends. But the irony is that spending time with friends and loved ones is one of the very things that could give us the energy and rejuvenation we need to be successful at work. Serotonin and oxytocin are the “love” chemicals released into our brains that come from healthy, significant friendships. An uptick in these chemical levels makes us more positive, joyful, and more energized—i.e., hardworking. Huh. It’s like God designed us for community.
How do we get out of this? Hyatt recommends that instead of our work designing our lives, we should let our lives design our work. We need to look through our life, highlight the things most important to us, figure out the time commitments needed to fulfill the things we desire, and then ruthlessly and relentlessly design our work life around that. It may mean actually leaving the office at 5:00, refusing to go into the office on a Saturday, upping your work ethic to get the most out of the hours you have during your day, or letting go of your pride and being okay with only working 40 hours a week (like your job description tells you to do).
Regardless of what it takes, we must say no to the things that rob us of what’s life-giving. We cannot afford to be too busy for friends.